So who exactly is writing the new primary curriculum?

New questions have arisen relating to the role of individuals including Ruth Miskin, an expert on the teaching of phonics, in the drafting of the new primary curriculum after journalists received an electronic copy of a draft of the proposed new national curriculum programme of study for primary English. This is from the Guardian…

How should a national curriculum be drawn up? With meaningful advice from a wide sweep of experienced teachers and academics, or by a clique of advisers whose policy preferences accord with those of ministers? Charges that a group of people who fall into the latter camp have had profound, and in some respects secret, influence are hanging over the government’s planned new primary curriculum, which is due to be finalised by September and to come into force for millions of pupils from 2014.

The coalition’s curriculum review, which began in January 2011 and in June 2012 produced draft proposals for English, maths and science in primary schools – the secondary version has yet to appear – has been dogged by allegations of secrecy. Organisations including the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education and Score – an umbrella group for science bodies including the Association for Science Education and the Royal Society – have asked to know which individuals have had meaningful influence on the writing of the new curriculum. In reply, ministers have referred to a long list of individuals who have been consulted.

Critics say what has emerged are programmes of study that are skewed towards ministers’ personal preferences and hobby-horses and that, instead of a national curriculum, England will get a “Conservative curriculum” that is politicised and undemocratic.

Now new questions have arisen relating to perhaps the most controversial of ministerial advisers, Ruth Miskin, an expert on the teaching of phonics who has built a successful business career on designing reading resources and training for schools. Miskin operates a company that has developed training for her own set of phonics teaching resources, which qualifies for a Department for Education subsidy of up to £3,000 per school.

Miskin, a former headteacher, serves on a group of teachers and educationists who have been advising ministers on the curriculum review. She was part of a government review of primary testing last year and has been quoted in government press releases in support of the controversial new phonics test for six-year-olds.

This newspaper was sent a copy of a draft of the proposed new national curriculum programme of study for primary English, marked “confidential” and dated 23 February 2012. With a mouse, it is possible to hover over the Microsoft Word icon linked to the document, upon which a message pops up: “Authors: Miskin Ruth; Title: Year 1 Reading – version 21/9/11”. On right-clicking on the document itself, under “properties” and then “details”, the document says: “Authors: Miskin Ruth; Company: Ruth Miskin Literacy.”

Miskin says she did not create this document, and nor did she write the draft programme of study for English. She says she does not know why her name appears as the document’s author. Asked if she wrote any part of it, her office says: “Ruth responded to the early drafts – she was not responsible for writing them”.

The February draft is very similar to the latest published version, on which an informal consultation was launched by the government in June. Both give much more prominence to the teaching of reading through systematic synthetic phonics – the method emphasised by Miskin and the DfE – than does the current national curriculum. For example, the first paragraph detailing what pupils should be taught in year 2 English includes six sentences, the first five of which relate to phonics.

The four-member “expert panel” of academics set up last year to advise ministers on the new curriculum was worried that synthetic phonics was being over-emphasised, Education Guardian has been told. There are also widespread concerns, including from the English Association, the United Kingdom Literacy Association and the National Association for the Teaching of English, that the mechanics of reading are over-stressed, with reading for engagement sidelined, throughout the curriculum for five- to 11-year-olds.

When it comes to the draft primary maths curriculum, most close observers of the review say that much of the writing was done by the late Richard Dunne, a consultant and author of teaching resources published, like Miskin’s, by Oxford University Press (OUP). Companies House records from 2011 list Miskin as a director of a company called Richard Dunne Maths Ltd. Both Miskin and Dunne have been consultants for an organisation called Oxford School Improvement, also run by OUP. Miskin’s website links to resources and training designed by Dunne.

Critics say the government has not been open about the influence on the curriculum of a small group of advisers. This summer, under pressure from a freedom of information request, ministers published a list of 115 people either “consulted” about the review or serving on ministerial advisory groups. Sceptics say it is impossible to tell who has had real influence. Janet Brennan, a former Ofsted senior inspector, is the only individual listed in a specific role, as a “contracted drafter”. Brennan is now an education consultant who recently wrote a pamphlet for Oxford School Improvement called Phonics: Getting the Best Results, advising schools on systematic phonics teaching.

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