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Is the Primary National Strategy transforming or ossifying English Primary Schools?

Bob Curtis

PhD Research Student, Nottingham University, UK.

Paper presented at the Nordic Educational Research Association Conference, University of Orebo, Sweden, 9-11 March 2006


Documentary and interview evidence, from current PhD research, into the implementation of the Primary National Strategy in six schools in areas of social deprivation in central England has suggested that, despite apparent freedom to innovate and change, centralised governmental control and power still dominate. Despite the rhetoric of creativity and devolution, there is evidence that a Foucauldian panopticon (Foucault, 1977 p184) of surveillance is continuing, sometimes subtly and sometimes unintentionally, within the Primary Strategy. In this paper, I consider three issues that hamper the capacity of primary schools to achieve the goals outlined in the strategy. In the first instance I consider whether targets, tables, testing and inspection are inhibiting and distracting schools from creating environments where democratic decision making and collective ways of working can flourish. Secondly, evidence from headteachers suggests, in particular, that the rigid structure and under-funding of statutory preparation, planning and assessment (PPA) time for teachers may be limiting curriculum development and creativity by frustrating the model of collaborative working used in most successful schools (Pollard, 2002). Finally I highlight evidence of how the long standing primary/secondary school funding imbalance (Alexander, 2000) is adding to these concerns and how the onerous burden of implementing other initiatives within the Primary Strategy is thwarting headteachers from sustaining democratic learning communities within their schools.


Excellence and Enjoyment: a strategy for primary schools (DfES, 2003),the introductory document of the National Primary Strategy, was presented by the Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clark as the definitive way forward for English primary education, in May 2003. Building on the proclaimed success of the New Labour government imposed National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies (1998 & 1999), it stated emphatically that ‘Our goal is for every primary school to combine excellence in teaching with enjoyment in learning’ (p4). At a time when achievement in national Key Stage 2 literacy and numeracy tests for eleven year old pupils seemed to have stalled (Earl et al., 2003), it promoted creativity and cultural education as ways to further improve results. It also introduced a wide ranging set of structural innovations with similar intentions.

In this paper I intend to explore the structure of the document, how the policy has been interpreted in six primary schools in areas of social deprivation in the English midlands, the influence which it has had and whether it is sustainable within the context of financial restrictions and innovation overload.

The Origins of Excellence and Enjoyment

The publication of Excellence and Enjoyment (DfES, 2003) was the culmination of a power struggle for the control of primary education that had been going on in a cauldron of intense political and media pressure for almost 30 years. In the early 1970s a curious combination of recession, a three day working week caused by national miners’ strikes, petrol rationing, and student riots and protest had created a climate where the right wing establishment and the press were looking for scapegoats (Woodhouse, 1987 p135). They found an educational one in ‘their persistent caricature of anarchic primary schools neglecting to teach the basics of literacy, numeracy, conformity and deference’ (Alexander, 2000 p140). School teachers could no longer be trusted to deliver. James Callaghan, Prime Minister highlighted this concern in his introductory speech to the ‘Great Debate’ on Education in 1976 at Ruskin College, Oxford – ‘There is unease felt about the new informal methods which seem to produce excellent results when they are in well qualified hands, but are much more dubious in their effects when they are not’ (Callaghan quoted in Jones, 1983 p73).

Politicians of all parties, seeing the decline in non-skilled and manual employment, called for a system of education that would empower children through the acquisition of skills necessary for the country to survive in a rapidly changing global economy (Tomlinson, 2000 p21). But there was no agreement about what this actually meant. The days of consensus were over. The battle for power and control of the school system had begun. For the next thirty years a series of structures and regulations were introduced by central government which constrained schools and removed power from local education authorities. Schools became subjected to one of the most tightly controlled and regulated state education systems in Europe (Alexander, 2000 p122).

I now consider how the post structuralist approach of French philosopher Michel Foucault exemplifies the current situation with regard to the introduction and implementation of the National Primary Strategy.

Why Foucault?

The theorisation of Foucault’s’ concepts of power-knowledge, discourse and panopticism can help to explain the origins of the systems of control and regulation in schools today (Foucault, 1977). His work can usefully be applied to look at how the current English education system is based on panoptican principles of penal reform, with the schools and teachers, the prisoners, subject to the most intense ongoing scrutiny.

In Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (1977) Foucault examined the history of the development the prison and how a system of external physical discipline, involving both capital and corporal punishment was gradually superseded by the more manipulative imposition of internal discipline as exemplified in the transparency of the Benthamite Panoptican. In this system the prisoner was housed in a large windowed cell in which his behaviour could be constantly monitored from a central point. At the same time each prisoner was isolated from contact with other adjacent detainees. Uncertainty in the mind of the prisoner was achieved by a subtle placing of blinds and screens to shield the observer from the prisoner. He never knew if or when he was being observed. This method of surveillance placed the responsibility for conforming to the expectations of the institution firmly with the prisoner.

From initially considering the prison, Foucault was able to apply the same model of power and control to other organizations; the mental institution, the factory, the school and the hospital. In considering schooling Foucault focussed on the power and control of the teacher to instruct children – for the ‘production of knowledge and skills in the school’ (Foucault, 1977 p219). Such Foucauldian disciplining and normalization of children has been clearly identified by Holligan from case studies in nursery schools (Holligan, 2000). In this study, there is evidence of policy expectations and discourse controlling the normalization of behaviour. Such Foucauldian discourse is summarised by Ball ‘Discourses are about what can be said and thought but also about who can speak, when, where and with what authority (Ball, 1994 p21). In another study Hope has investigated how student access to the internet is monitored and controlled using panopticon systems of surveillance by teachers, and how this is often undermined by subversive (un-observed) activities of pupils in secondary schools. He also considered the role of the super-panopticon of Poster, associated with the development of on line technology and complex data handling systems (Hope, 2005; Poster, 1990) and how the availability of such information may influence educational choice and accompanying resources..

The power and control of discourse is highlighted by Selwyn when he raises concerns about the Panopticon nature of National Grid for Learning (NGfL), an internet based system of communication for teachers and students, controlled by the government and being installed in every school (Selwyn, 2000). One of the issues raised for future research by Selwyn was - ‘What effect is the Grid having in centralising power towards the government and the DfEE and away from local stakeholders in education?’(p253). Evidence of the way that this now well established network has been used to strengthen central government control of schools is considered later in this paper.

Foucault’s notions of ‘disciplinary regime’ and ‘normalising judgement’ have proved useful in framing teachers’ judgements of the most overt element of government control, the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) (Case, Case, & Catling, 2000) . Foucault himself talks of how power relations have become ‘ … progressively governmentalized, that is to say, elaborated, rationalized, and centralized in the form of, or under the auspices of, state institutions’ (Foucault, 1994).

Griffiths highlights comments made by Foucault taken from an interview in relation to education in 1988;

‘Power is not an evil. Power is strategic games… Let us also take something that has been the object of criticism, often justified: the pedagogical institution. I don’t see where the evil is in the practice of someone who in a given game of truth, knowing more than another, tells him what he must do, teaches him, transmits knowledge to him, communicates skills to him. The problem is rather to know how you are to avoid in these practices … the effects of domination’ (Foucault 1988 p18-19 quoted in Griffiths, 1998 p60).

Pignatelli (2002) highlights the way in which the ethical stance of some people working in education challenges the domination of those attempting to impose a fixed structure upon them. He explains that the work of Foucault supports this ethical stance in that;

‘…one would come to know what it means and what it takes to contest and respond to the alarming proliferation of practices and policies which extend uniformity, decontextualize initiatives, cloak relations of power, and obscure differences; a terrain where the work of educational leaders who wish to move beyond a constraining, uninspiring notion of managerial competency might enfold’ (Pignatelli, 2002 p178).

Foucault himself, in considering the effects of panopticism, describes how the subject of visibility, in this case the school, responds when closely observed through a regime of testing, targets and inspection.

‘He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection’ (Foucault, 1977 p 202-3).

This is the problem facing schools in attempting to implement Excellence and Enjoyment. They are being subjected to intense outside pressure to conform, to become Foucauldian ‘docile bodies’ in his words - ‘ …discipline produces subjected and practised bodies, ‘docile bodies’’(Foucault, 1977 p138). At the same time schools are being encouraged to innovate and change. There are head teachers who remain committed to those parts of the strategy which promote innovation and change. However such innovations are not empowered by law and there is historic evidence that it is the easily monitored statutory elements of reform which persist, once initial enthusiasm has dimmed and funding diminished (Tyack & Cuban, 1995 p57).

Further to this, the discourse of schooling legitimates many restrictive practices through what Foucault describes as ‘normalisation’ i.e.:-

‘The perpetual penality that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short it normalizes’ (Foucault, 1977 p183).

Foucault further states that;

‘The Normal is established as a principle of coercion in teaching with the introduction of a standardized education and the establishment of teacher training colleges’ (Foucault, 1977 p184).

The expectations of those outside the institution reinforce this legitimating vocabulary thus making change and innovation more difficult. A consensus of opinion is needed within the discourse to lead to substantive change.

I will now argue that there is evidence that Excellence and Enjoyment (DfES, 2003), the introductory document of the National Primary Strategy attempts to address this issue but does not succeed.

A critical analysis of Excellence and Enjoyment

I begin with a brief description of the document and some general comments about language within it. After this I develop three themes which have been identified as impacting considerably on schools;

  1. Targets and Testing
  2. Preparation, Planning and Assessment (PPA) time
  3. Funding Issues and Initiative Overload

I then discuss how these issues, allied to an imposed system of self audit and self discipline, promulgate centralized control and inhibit schools from developing the exciting and engaging aspects of learning which the Strategy attempts to promote.

Finally I conclude by considering what is being done, and what more needs to be done, for schools to transform themselves beyond elementary institutions, into effective learning communities.

What is Excellence and Enjoyment?

Excellence and Enjoyment: A strategy for primary schools was launched in May 2003. Using exemplars of the ‘best’ primary schools as identified by OFSTED (i.e. those with high standards), it encouraged schools and teachers to take ownership of the curriculum and to be creative and innovative in their teaching. At the same time it emphasised that schools must continue to focus on raising standards using the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies with rigidly structured three part lessons, interactive whole class teaching and plenaries (Alexander, 2004) but that they should not be afraid to combine that with making learning fun. It also emphasised the need for a learning focus on individual children, supported extended schools, promoted partnerships with parents, developed a variety of leadership strategies that encouraged collaboration between schools(including appointing a Primary Strategy Manager to every LEA), and introduced workforce reforms to facilitate the introduction of the strategy.

Language use within the document

The language of the Primary Strategy suggests an implied consensus (Jones, 1983 p30) as in the following extracts;

‘1.5. … in outstanding primary schools, there is no sense of a tension between high standards and exciting learning.’

‘2.0 Schools should feel empowered to develop their own rich and varied curricula.’

‘4.1. Every teacher knows that truly effective learning and teaching focuses on individual children, their strengths, their needs, and the approaches which engage, motivate and inspire them.’

‘7.5. Workforce reform goes hand in hand with curriculum enrichment.’

‘8.7. We know that our strategy cannot succeed if it is not properly resourced.’

However, much of this vocabulary, promoting curriculum innovation and change, is superficial. A different Foucauldian discourse, that of ‘power - knowledge’, is clearly to the fore within the text of the document.

‘2.27. We do not accept that the tests and tasks which are set to children at the age of seven, at Key Stage 1, are too difficult or stressful for children to do.’

‘2.23. For schools that have lower levels of attainment – in particular those below 65% – the targets they set should show a trajectory for improving performance at least to this level as soon as possible.’

‘3.13. We want to have a sharper focus on underperformance, wherever it is found.’

‘4.6. However, we remain concerned that the percentage of pupils below Level 3 has not decreased in recent years, despite this support.’ (Teaching assistants)

I now consider the three themes which appear to have hampered school development.

Theme (1) Targets and Testing

Evidence of government intransigence in maintaining centralised control and ignoring advice and proposals in preparing the Primary Strategy is revealed. One recommendation for encouraging creativity in schools had been set out in the government commissioned report All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (NACCCE, 1999). This was that the DfEE should arrange to ease pressures on assessment. Four years later OISEUT, in their final report for the government on the implementation of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, also addressed the issue;

‘We caution that setting ever higher national targets may no longer serve to mobilise and motivate, particularly if schools and LEAs see the targets as unrealistic’(Earl et al., 2003 p7).

In Excellence and Enjoyment (DfES, 2003) Charles Clarke, then Secretary of State for Education, blatantly ignored these concerns;

‘2.18 The Secretary of State has said that testing, targets and tables are here to stay.’

The rest of the paragraph claims that we (whoever that may be) are open to suggestions about how testing, targets and tables might be improved and refined to help teachers do their job better still. Obviously the government is not open to suggestions from their own commissioned research. This is illustrated in the next but one paragraph;

‘2.20 So maintaining the 85% target is right – both morally and educationally.’

Targets have become a moral issue. The Foucauldian principle of correction is being applied here. Teachers cannot be trusted (Power, 1997). They must be reformed. They are already being seen to be doing reasonably well but how can their supervision be improved? Ever closer scrutiny will identify those immoral teachers who are failing the children.

Agency and Punishment

It is fascinating that schools are so often associated with two other institutions that are concerned with dealing with individuals incarcerated against their will, mental institutions and prisons ((Foucault, 1977; Jackson, 1990). Teachers have been seen as prison warders or key holders, exercising power and control over children. However, in English primary schools they have also become prisoners. They are denied freedom through a combination of compliance on their part, the intolerance of freedom manifest in the right wing establishment advising politicians, and populist ignorance promoted by certain parts of the media. This Foucauldian positioning, identified within Excellence and Enjoyment, raises questions about the intentions and motivations of the policy makers – both obvious and hidden (Scott 2000).

A ‘what works’ Policy?

Excellence and Enjoyment is scathingly described by Alexander as purporting to be a ‘what works’ policy with ‘large print, homely language, images of smiling children, and populist appeals to teachers’ common sense’ (Alexander, 2004 p9 & p7). In considering the document, if everything could be taken at face value, with intentions and purposes clear and meaning understood, this would be fine. However this does not seem appropriate when analysing the Primary Strategy document because it is so diverse and open to interpretation. A more pragmatic way of looking at it is described by Ozga where she considers policy; …as a process rather than a product, involving negotiation, contestation or struggle between different groups who may lie outside the formal machinery of policy making’ (Ozga, 2000 p2).

If policy implementation is a process, as Ozga describes, the authors of Excellence and Enjoyment do not seem to see it that way. They are laying down the rules, on their terms, to exert power and control over the recipients of the policy (Foucault 1977). Negotiation, contestation and struggle are not part of the process. Throughout the document there are examples of authoritarian language being used to show where power and control lies;

‘2. Tests, targets and tables play a vital role in helping to raise standards’

‘2.17. Performance tables – particularly now that value-added measures have been introduced – enable all of us to assess the performance of individual schools …. They give solid proof and real recognition of what teachers are achieving.’

‘3.12. For schools which are underperforming …there will still be pressure to address and challenge their weaknesses, using tried and tested approaches.’

Only limited, selective evidence is used to justify such statements but for those reading it quickly, looking for press headlines, it seems impressive. No account is taken of independent research which questions the validity of these pronouncements (Sainsbury, 2003; Tymms, 2004; Wyse, 2003). At the same time another set of statements seems to offer more freedom and independence;

‘1.14 We want schools to feel freer to take control, and to use that freedom to:

Take a fresh look at their curriculum, their timetable and the organisation of the school day and week, and think actively about how they would like to develop and enrich the experience they offer their children.’

Here is evidence of the contradictory nature of Excellence and Enjoyment (Brehony, 2005). Freedom appears to be offered but only when a structure is established that severely restricts it. Research findings of the last 25 years have shown that highly skilled and motivated teachers in supportive schools have be able to exploit opportunities to work creatively, despite restrictions. But for the majority of teachers conformity to their own perceived norms has taken precedence over fully implementing government or LEA initiatives (Alexander, 1992; Earl et al., 2003; Jeffrey & Woods, 2003; OFSTED, 2003; Woods & Jeffrey, 1996).

Effective professional development is labour-intensive and expensive (English, Hargreaves, & Hislam, 2002). It is no good just using the ’what works’ principle (Alexander, 2004). Teachers need to be reflective, capable of self-evaluation, with the capacity to think creatively and to be willing to innovate and continue in their own professional development (Pollard 2002). This applies to literacy, numeracy and all other aspects of learning and teaching that create excellent schools. Is there any overall commitment to developing such professional attitudes within the Primary Strategy?

Investigation of the vocabulary of the document reveals a pattern of government commitment at variance with stated intentions. This is shown in the next section.

What is being supported?

Using Nvivo my first analysis simply coded the document into excellence and enjoyment. This coding was judgemental, being my interpretation. It is quite possible for an activity or experience to be both enjoyable and at the same time excellent. For excellence, however, I focussed on the implied government expectation that associates excellence with standards, testing and achievement; very much terms of control and power. For enjoyment I considered themes such as freedom, excitement and enrichment where independence of thought might flourish. Excellence was coded in twice as many passages as enjoyment but more significantly the character count for excellence was seven times that of enjoyment. One pattern that emerged on many occasions was that a brief line about enjoyment would appear in a long passage about excellence.

Using text analysis to consider the approach of the policy makers, I found that the most frequently used word was ‘support’. The use of this word sends a strong message, subliminally. The government is there to ‘support’ teachers and to ‘support’ schools. But most frequently it is control and power that the government is supporting.

Here is evidence of a change in policy language, if not intention. The prescriptive and confrontational style, with threats and unrelenting pressure for improvement, as found in the White Paper Excellence in Schools (DfEE 1997), where schools would be subjected to the ‘right amount of pressure and support’ (Tomlinson 2001) has been reversed. Power and control is no longer obvious but still subtly relentless.

Vocabulary analysis considering ‘control’ and ‘freedom’ produced interesting results. There are more than six times as many words used that exercise control over schools (such as improvement, standards and targets) than there are those that encourage freedom of thought (such as creativity, innovation and excitement).

Where is Creativity?

One unusual aspect of the document is the way in which creativity is treated. The first mention of creativity within the curriculum refers the reader to a QCA web site. Why has all the vocabulary that supports freedom and individuality been hived off to a web site? Is it without importance? Would it send out the wrong message? There is no mention of the recommendations from All Our Futures: Creativity Culture and Education (NACCCE 1999). It seems that again this document has been ignored. Joubert highlights what may still be the problem;

‘Creativity may be too difficult to measure for a government that wants to prove that it is tough on targets’ (Joubert, 2001).

This is hardly conducive to believing that creativity is at the heart of Excellence and Enjoyment. In fact a recent evaluation of the Primary National Strategy by OFSTED states that;

‘Most headteachers and subject leaders have concentrated on the raising standards agenda, which is at the heart of Excellence and Enjoyment, but have been more cautious in promoting greater flexibility within the curriculum’(OFSTED, 2005).

So here is evidence that OFSTED believes measurable achievement to be at the heart of the strategy. Despite this, some of the recommendations of the NACCCE committee, although not acknowledged, seem to have been considered.

Style and Content of Excellence and Enjoyment

Alexander (2004) is most derisory about the style and content of Excellence and Enjoyment. The following example illustrates the often ill thought out language to be found throughout the document;

‘5.0 Excellent primary schools know that the work they do outside the classroom with parents and the community and on tackling vital issues like behaviour and school transport is critical to helping children get the best from their learning.’

This is an amazing statement – to link in one sentence behaviour and school transport.

Good behaviour is a vital issue and, despite the confusion with transport, there is evidence that the government believes it important;

‘5.0 Primary schools have a critical role in teaching children positive behaviour, and must be supported in building strong approaches to behaviour into the way they teach and into the ethos of the school.’

It is not clear if positive behaviour should be equated with conformity and control. What is a ‘strong approach’? This is a very good media sound bite. Independence of thought and self-discipline do not seem high on the agenda. Similar confusing and contradictory messages are found elsewhere in the document. Early on it states that:

‘The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies though they are supported strongly are not statutory and can be adapted to meet schools’ particular needs’ (p16).

But this important point seems to have been forgotten later;

‘4.6… we have developed a model of intervention for children experiencing difficulties in literacy or mathematics, based on three waves:

Wave One: the effective inclusion of all pupils in a high quality, daily literacy hour and mathematics lesson …’ (my emphases)

Here support seems to have become prescription. It illustrates the expectation that in every school having children with special needs there will be found the specified daily literacy and numeracy lessons. This is clearly control.

Valid Evidence

There is evidence of self-interest to be found in the government using reports by OFSTED, itself a government agency, to justify actions taken, without considering other research:

‘2.11 …But as OFSTED reports have shown, it is not a question of ‘either’, ‘or’. Raising standards and making learning fun can and do go together.’

The document seems to be part of a self-perpetuating myth of government success;

‘3.2 The Literacy and Numeracy Strategies have, according to all those who have evaluated them, been strikingly successful at improving the quality of teaching and raising standards in primary schools.’

This is contested. Many researchers have found considerable fault with the strategies (English et al., 2002; Fisher, 2004; Mroz, Smith, & Hardman, 2000; Smith, Hardman, Wall, & Mroz, 2004; Twistleton, 2000; Tymms, 2004; Wyse, 2003). The fact that they have been ignored is more evidence of power and control, rather than research findings, being promoted. In the document there is a lack of authorship and very selective evidence is used. There are few references to independent research or acknowledgements. The PIRLS study (2003) quoted in Excellence and Enjoyment to justify and promote the good position of ten year old readers in an international comparison was selectively reported. The NFER summary of the same report mentions;

The PIRLS international survey (2003) reported results from 35 countries and it found that, whilst pupils in England read very well compared to those in other countries, their enjoyment of reading is poor by comparison(Sainsbury, 2003). (my emphasis)

This statement was not used as a reason to promote enjoyment in Excellence and Enjoyment!

There are very mixed messages about the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. After proclaiming their success in raising standards the authors admit that;

‘3.2 …at present, evaluations show that too many teachers do not have a deep understanding of the Strategies, which hinders them from adapting and shaping them to their own pupils’ needs.’

All Our Futures (NACCCE 1999) highlighted this 5 years earlier, but talked of teachers having access to materials, ideas and strategies for the imaginative implementation of literacy and numeracy. Excellence and Enjoyment talks simply of deep understanding of the strategies. More control is again implied.

Good Practice

Throughout the document excellence is promoted and exemplified by using the term ‘good practice’. This is not clearly defined except in terms of achievement and performance. It seems that good test results define good practice. Here is evidence of the ‘normalisation’ of language to suit the government agenda. The document does not make clear what the government vision for future practice should be but it does suggest how it will be promoted;

‘6.16. We intend to develop a new ‘Leading Practice’ programme for primary schools, with common national criteria and branding.’

This is unusual, market-oriented language. What is the definition of ‘Leading Practice’? Apparently;

‘6.16 …The criteria will be built into a self-assessment model like those that many schools already use, so that schools themselves can judge when they are ready to apply to have their leading practice recognised.’

Applying for recognition is another example of bureaucratic control.

Workforce Reform

Here is another very sweeping statement, taken as fact, with very little evidence to back it up;

‘7.5. Workforce reform goes hand in hand with curriculum enrichment. Higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs), working under a framework of supervision and direction from the teacher and headteacher, can not only free up teachers’ time, but can also bring a wealth of expertise to help bring the curriculum alive.’

But then, in the next sentence…

‘7.5 …The Department has asked the Teacher Training Agency to develop a training programme for Higher Level Teaching Assistants. This training must be rigorous enough for the responsible role intended and be designed to support the classroom teacher who will remain responsible for the learning programme in raising pupil achievement.’

Quite what the last part means is not clear. It may be as one interviewed head teacher described it – "teachers using PPA (Preparation, Planning and Assessment) time to plan for PPA time cover". When do the two plan together? The document states there are now more TAs so inevitably they will be used in more flexible ways. But there is no evidence in the document or from the interviews to suggest that this path is the right one for covering the 10% PPA time for all primary school teachers.


There have been high profile ‘consultations’ and meetings across the country attended by a large number of people. But the document rebuts the identified areas of concern, such as tests and funding inequalities. The primary/secondary funding issue is one example;

‘8.13 Between 1997-98 and 2002-03 the (funding) assessment per pupil rose by 28% (in cash terms) in the primary sector as against 25% in the secondary sector.’

Yet PPA time instantly increases teaching requirements by 10% in one go! It seems other initiatives in the document such as extended schools, parental involvement, foreign language teaching, networking and collaboration, school travel and sport may be open to dialogue. Could this be a diversionary tactic so that central control of the curriculum and the regime of targets and testing are still maintained? The evidence from the document analysis seems to suggest that it is.

It would appear that this document is written at one level to win over teachers using non-challenging language and offering them freedom and enjoyment (Alexander 2004). For politicians and government officials it is subtly re-stating their power and control over primary education by using performance targets and test results as tools to proclaim their success (real or illusory) to the press and media.

I will now consider how interview evidence from headteachers has contributed to this first theme of targets and testing before using their evidence to develop the following themes.

Headteacher evidence

One fascinating piece of evidence to emerge from the headteacher interviews, which were in schools in challenging circumstances where test results do not always reflect the effort being put in by teachers, was the acceptance of the regime of targets, testing and inspection, in Foucauldian terms the ‘normalisation’ of these activities in primary schools. They were not overriding issues in the day to day running of these schools. SATs were introduced, statutorily, in 1993. It is interesting to note that by 1999 the last school in England resisting Key Stage 2 SATs, Rosslyn Junior School, Nottingham had finally agreed to implement the tests. This school, serving some of the most socially deprived areas of Nottingham, conformed even though it felt the tests irrelevant to many of its pupils (Brehony, 2005). Evidence from the NFER/LGA Annual Survey of Trends in Primary Education (Easton, Knight, & Kendall, 2005) also supports the finding that the system of surveillance has become ‘normalised’ and was not a current major issue of concern to the 413 schools in the survey..

This raises the question as to whether such acceptance of the systems of control and conformity actually leads to the ossification of the school as considered in the title of this paper.

Theme (2) PPA time

My research has revealed on-going concerns with the statutory introduction of preparation planning and assessment (PPA) time. If primary schools have to continue to fund and implement PPA time, according to its statutory requirements, there is evidence that opportunities for co-operative planning and curriculum development, which have grown significantly in recent years, will be frustrated (Curtis, 2005 p59). Schools could become more deeply entrenched than ever in their current structure.

Although intended to give more time to teachers to enable them to think more imaginatively and creatively, several heads clearly felt that the new system was restrictive because of the legislation stating that PPA time has to take place regularly every week. The structure means that teachers now often work in isolation frustrating the teamwork approach that has helped school development in recent years;

Phil: "… the government have made it so prescriptive in that it has to be the same morning every week- that takes away all my flexibility."

Dawn: " .. part of me understands why they have to say it is a certain percentage to make it fair. Fine, but, in practical terms it, just does not work."

There is a real tension here. Not one headteacher challenged the idea of PPA time. It has a proven track record in other countries - Australia, USA and Canada. In England it is a utopian ideal and for the leader of a team of teachers to be questioning the value of it would be divisive. But there are real concerns about funding.

These concerns may be explained by a different view of the financial commitment of government to PPA time. A recent National Audit Office report states that;

Rather than valuing improvements in quality of teaching directly by measuring the impact of additional time made available to teachers, the Department (DfES) will report efficiency gains on the basis of the cost of teacher time freed up less the cost of extra support staff…’(Bourn, 2006 p44).

This information is also clearly stated in a DfES efficiency technical note which identifies efficiency as either; ‘ a) Reduced input for same or better output or b) More or better output for same input’ (DfES, 2005). Here is clear evidence of cost cutting exercises undermining the strategy.

In a written statement concerning PPA time and school funding for 2005-2006, Minister of State David Milliband, commented that:

‘The precise cost for individual schools will, of course, depend on the strategies chosen to implement the reforms and the amount of time that needs to be created, but we expect the average cost pressure to be between 0.8 and 1% for primary and nursery schools’(DfES, 2004).

The facts that all teachers are entitled to 10% of non contact (PPA) time each week and that the majority of primary school budgets are taken up by staffing make this figure of 1% seem unusual. Headteachers identified the quality of provision for children as a concern. The government appears to be expecting schools to provide cover without matched funding, suggesting that cover for teachers be provided by HLTAs (Higher Level Teaching Assistants) and outside specialists for such activities as PE and music (employed at a cheaper rate than qualified teachers). It is ironic to note that the White Paper of 1972 (introduced by Margaret Thatcher, Secretary of State for Education !) celebrated one of the most positive achievements of the previous 10 years when she highlighted the virtual disappearance of unqualified teachers which represented ‘...a qualitative as well as a quantitative improvement’ (DES, 1972 p14). Quite where the qualitative improvement for primary schools will come from through the current form of PPA time is not clear.

Similar concerns about PPA time to those expressed by the headteachers in this study have been identified in an OFSTED evaluation of the progress of workforce reform across 12 LEAs and 26 schools;

‘… where schools have introduced changes to meet the requirements, few have firm strategies for determining the quality of provision or the impact on pupils’ learning. Some have practical concerns, especially in small schools where there is little flexibility in staffing; others are uncertain about longer term sustainability where they have obtained additional funds to employ extra staff; and a few are resistant as they perceive that the quality of teaching and learning will suffer as a result of teachers’ increased absence from the classroom’ (OFSTED, 2005 p9).

I will now consider how financial concerns are impinging on school development.

Theme (3) Funding Issues

The model for PPA time has come from secondary education but the funding discrepancy between the two sectors, highlighted in the interviews and discussed in Excellence and Enjoyment has not been addressed.

Initiative Overload

This is at a time when further initiatives for extended schools, foreign language teaching and other aspects of workforce reform are also encroaching on the finances and resources available in primary schools. The recent White Paper on the future of secondary education (DFES 2005) will further impinge upon opportunities for primary schools to work collaboratively and creatively with their local secondary schools. Interview evidence has shown how much the schools value the current transition arrangements. There are concerns that these will be weakened if children go to a variety of secondary schools. Headteachers feared that transition resources will be spent on attracting suitable pupils to various secondary schools rather than on supporting those pupils who may carry with them, a multitude of problems. Choice will only benefit those families willing to be mobile and pro-active. Selection will take place by default – a policy of deselection. The problems of transition for less secure primary school pupils will be immense. Primary schools will struggle financially to accommodate appropriate transition procedures for them. This is hardly the model of primary/secondary transition envisaged by Excellence and Enjoyment as suitable for the 21st Century.

Financial management

Every one of the interviewees has been very astute in the way their finances are managed. From concerns about losing children to other schools, to providing curriculum enrichment and support, there is clear evidence of insufficient funding for the model promoted in Excellence and Enjoyment;

Julie:" I shall probably end up using capital devolved money from Easter to September to finish it off. I don’t know what it will be like next year."

Phil: "Every time anybody leaves the school I look at how much they’re costing me and what can I get for their salary basically. There’s a teacher that’s been earning £38000 a year, with on costs. You think- Well - Yeah. I can get a teacher and a TA for that if I appoint someone on the right sort of salary."

Other heads have raised considerable amounts of money to fund on-going projects and one has even gambled on using a non teaching deputy to provide supply cover, having put no money into the supply cover budget! Here is clear evidence of headteachers struggling to survive financially. Despite enhanced funding, extra financial commitments have far outstripped any budgetary increases.

Added to this is pressure to prepare children for secondary school, particularly from politicians and the media, associated with the publicity of SATs. Children are taught to the tests (Tymms, 2004). There is constant monitoring through OFSTED and self evaluation. There is competition between schools because of payment by numbers on roll. Accountability has become the buzz word for everything that happens in the state sector.

The National Strategies(DfES, 2003), imposed by the government and monitored by OFSTED, have promoted whole class teaching, causing schools to purchase published schemes of work and to concentrate on teaching to the test in order to survive in what has become an ever increasing educational jungle

State primary schools have been left with a system which promotes ‘…the basics of literacy, numeracy, conformity and deference’ (Alexander, 2000 p 140). Interestingly, Alexander develops this concern further when he identifies the structure of the system as being the one thing which has not been addressed or changed, no matter how much pedagogy, methods, curriculum and management have been dealt with (Alexander, 2000 p147-148). It is the financial structure of primary schools that continues to raise concerns both from the interviewees and further afield.

The NFER/LGA 2004 Annual Survey of Trends in Primary Education (Easton et al., 2005 p 2) reports that for the 11th consecutive year budget concerns were the most common cause of concern for headteachers with 76% highlighting this issue as their main worry. Until such concerns are addressed, particularly the imbalance between primary and secondary school funding, there is little possibility of sustainable change being achieved.

I will now consider how the structures used by government to monitor primary schools are consolidating the current position and exacerbating the concerns already identified.

Self audit – self discipline?

Power highlights how the system of monitoring schools has developed which promotes certain measurable aspects of teaching to the exclusion of less tangible longer term influences on the learning of children:

‘The drift towards delivering philosophies of teaching, supported by hard managerial assumptions, is transforming teaching from a relationship into a transaction which can be made auditable in isolation’ (Power, 1997).

He raises concerns that teaching will be oriented to the expectations of the customer through the performance culture of rewards and penalties and that the lack of trust in teachers will frustrate change in those expectations.

Power talks of society putting itself at risk because it invests too heavily in ‘shallow rituals of verification at the expense of other forms of organizational intelligence’ (Power, 1997 p123). He also highlights the irony that it is the democratic ideals which drive society, those of openness and accountability that threaten to make it a closed society because of the trust which is put into the methods of verification. ‘They do not form a basis for communication and dialogue’ (p128).

There is evidence of a change in regulatory style in the recent introduction of the on-line SEF (Self Evaluation Form) for schools by OFSTED. At the time of the interviews all the headteachers, except one whose school had just come out of special measures (a series of even more rigorous termly inspections involving a great deal of self evaluation), expressed real concerns about the amount of time and effort involved in getting this form in place by September 2005.

Once on line the school SEF is able to be constantly monitored by OFSTED. It can be updated and altered at any time by the headteacher but it is frozen three days before an imminent inspection, when the school is notified of this forthcoming event. Headteachers have discovered that access to the SEF is frozen two days earlier than this so they are able to get approximately 5 days warning of inspection. This means visiting the web site on a daily basis – just in case!

Power describes the process of self evaluation as a process of internalising the enforcement of compliance and that the advantages of this outweigh the disadvantages. He then goes on to suggest that if this is the case ‘inspection and external audit should eventually collapse into a quality assurance function, an audit of the arrangements for self inspection (Power, 1997 p131).

However, centralised power and control have not diminished. This is a very sophisticated technological development of panopticism. OFSTED inspectors now have a direct window into the heart of the school. No one knows if they are being observed until access to the form is denied. The SEF is a large document covering all aspects of school life. The inspectorate now has detailed knowledge of the regulated domain (Power, 1997) that previously was unobtainable. Up to this point only computer analysis of OFSTED reports could feed generalisations found in such documents as the annual report of the Chief Inspector of Schools. Foucault describes the process of using observation to constantly build up a body of knowledge of the individual as an ‘instrument of perpetual assessment’. Modern technology now means that each individual school is subjected to such monitoring.

Self regulation has now been rigorously enforced. Self evaluation, in principle essential for school development, has become a control system. Shore and Wright summarise this ‘…external subjection and internal subjectification are combined so that individuals conduct themselves in terms of the norms through which they are governed’ (Shore,C. & Wright, S. in Stratherne, 2000 p 61-2).


Tyack and Cuban bring to the study of schooling the vocabulary of the ‘real’ school and suggest that this language is responsible for much of the intransigence which this study has identified:

‘.... we suggest that the "establishment" that has held the grammar in place is not so much a conscious conservatism as it is unexamined institutional habits and widespread cultural beliefs about what constitutes a "real school"’ (Tyack & Cuban, 1995).

Interview evidence has highlighted the concerns of headteachers in having to adapt their leadership and management structures in order to accommodate constant monitoring. Aspects of innovation and creativity are expected to be regularly recorded. Headteachers felt that this was making their schools vulnerable to criticism, as creativity and innovation carry with them an implied element of risk. The resultant anxiety demands a new skill from headteachers as identified by Beck - ‘In the risk society…handling fear and insecurity becomes an essential cultural qualification, and the cultivation of the abilities demanded for it become an essential mission for pedagogical institutions’ (Beck, 1992 p76). Whether creativity and innovation can flourish alongside such pressures and inhibitions is a real concern. Fielding highlights the concerns regarding accountability having a deleterious effect:

‘.. accountability can intimidate and confuse as much as it can stimulate effort and deepen understanding’ (Fielding, 2001 p150).

There is little evidence, at present, of how the SEF will be treated in successful schools post OFSTED. Such schools will not expect to be inspected again for three years. There may be space for reflection, creativity and innovation but the threat of constant panopticism will continue. Using the SEF the government will be able to monitor specific concerns and to identify schools that are not conforming (or performing). It is not yet clear what criteria will be used to single out schools for more frequent inspections. It is possible that financial restrictions will limit the ability of OFSTED to effectively (in their terms) control schools.

The whole system could become a new game or ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977) where appropriate language used in official documents such as the SEF enables schools to avoid being noticed. The belief that schools are under a Foucauldian panopticism of control may prove to be self delusory to the government and OFSTED. It is possible that democratic learning communities will flourish in some schools, but the concern is that continuing conformity will be the easier option. Further to this, implementation of the National Primary Strategy has become the responsibility of a private company, Capita, since April 2005. If it uses a statistically based business model to evaluate achievement and measure success this may well encourage yet more conformity.

The government is investing a huge amount of money in primary schools in an attempt to redress many years of under spending by the previous Conservative administration. This is very welcome, with many new schools being built or planned and others being refurbished. Investment in information technology has been immense with real improvements everywhere. The number of teaching assistants has increased dramatically. These efforts are really benefiting schools and children and must be applauded.

The concerns that this paper highlights are to do with what will actually be going on in these upgraded and well resourced buildings. Evidence suggests that schools are still lacking sufficient overall funds for staffing, despite the excellent increases in support staff, and remain inundated with initiatives and over whelmed by unrealistic expectations. In such a climate they will find it very difficult to transform themselves beyond elementary institutions, judged by results, into effective learning communities.

I am contactable at Nottingham University School of Education, The Dearing Building, Jubilee Campus, Woolaton Road, Nottingham NG8 1BB

e-mail  or at home


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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 27 October 2006