Children, their World, their Education - Final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review

Editor(s) Robin Alexander
Publisher Routledge
Published 2009
Pages 608
Price £35
ISBN 9780415548717
Reviewed by Mr Keith Savage
Stockport College
Review published 27 April 2010

Those of us old enough to remember the ‘three wise men’ who wrote a report in 1992 on teaching in primary schools will forever associate Chris Woodhead, Jim Rose and Robin Alexander. Many of us will regret that, of the three, Alexander has had less direct impact on education policy. That sense can only be compounded by reading this Final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review.

This Report might, in other times or circumstances, have been described as a 'landmark' but with the government-sponsored Rose report and the statutory New Primary Curriculum, that becomes effective in September 2011, in place the Cambridge Primary Review is practically irrelevant. Given that the Report was intended to 'make a difference' the irony is harsh. (Alexander’s claim in the postscript to the Review that it was written for the 'longer term, not the next election' strikes me as necessarily optimistic).

The Review includes 75 recommendations – some of which are now redundant (e.g. the scrapping of the Primary National Strategy) and it may be that the work of the Cambridge team from 2006 onwards has had some influence. The recommendations are grouped under a number of 'signposts' that go beyond immediate questions to do with curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and staffing. Broader questions about the purpose of education and respect for children provide a context for the detailed and specific ideas about how a new curriculum could be structured.

The fact, however, that Ed Balls and the DCSF team were quick to dismiss the Cambridge Primary Review would not have come as a surprise to Alexander. At various points Alexander describes New Labour's approach to educational planning and target-setting as Stalinist and a 'state theory of learning' – a phrase borrowed from Balarin and Lauder; he finds guidance for teachers published by the Department as obvious, superficial, over-simplified and generalised. Further he is, for example, unsympathetic to personalised learning and the value claimed for one-dimensional learning styles as a tool for classroom planning.

The Cambridge Review is extensively and critically reviewed in the current issue of Forum: for promoting 3-19 comprehensive education where one of the Review’s contributing authors, Michael Armstrong, argues that it might yet have an impact. During the general election campaign all the main parties seem to be suggesting that now is the time to give teachers the time and space to use their professional judgement: they should be less directed by central government. If politicians can resist the temptation to intervene, or respond to every education panic story in the newspapers, then, says Armstrong, schools might develop the strength and confidence to act locally and independently. He would urge schools to draw on the revolutionary recognition of children’s agency in the Cambridge Review to inform local initiatives.

Even if this Report does turn out to be the heaviest piece of ephemera you pick up there is much in it of value; the historical overview and contextualisation of this Review and much of the research data that is summarised throughout the Report will be helpful – for students and academics if not classroom practitioners. Should this Report become totally irrelevant after the election of May 6th then that will be a condemnation of the political class in England.