The main function of a good primary education is to give a solid foundation for secondary school and further education.
It is meant to prepare young children to learn from life and function in an ever more complex environment while they continue formal studies and learn to apply the growing pool of knowledge and skills they acquire.
So the expansion of the primary school syllabus four years ago, which culminates this year in a six-subject Grade Seven exam, makes a great deal of sense, building basic competencies and ensuring that this process is taken seriously through evaluation and examination.
It is on these basic competencies that teenagers need to build, and be familiar with the concepts.
Grade Seven has been under continuous upgrade for several decades. In colonial times, it was a school leaving examination for three quarters of children who actually managed to complete seven years of primary education, and there were high drop-out rates on that journey.
Within those severe politically-imposed limitations then, the professionals who actually cared, did their level best to build the ultimate core skills of basic literacy and numeracy to a high level. This was so that children could function in a modern economy, and a door was left slightly ajar for them to develop further skills, largely on their own. When you did not know if a child would even make it even as far as Grade Seven, this made a lot of sense.
This contrasted quite strongly with the education system for the small ethnic minorities, who were all by law compelled to not only finish primary school, but carry on to secondary education and be educated as the future ruling classes. They not only had their basic mathematics and English, but there were a lot of what were called content subjects.
Although these groups did not sit public examinations, there was a complex syllabus laid down and a large battery of examinations at the end of Standard Five, what Grade Seven was called in this system. The results were then sent to the secondary school of choice, to assist in initial streaming. One of the objectives of creating that tiny ruling class, was to divide it into three groups: the graduates and professionals, the skilled technical workers, and the clerical grades.
After independence, the whole philosophy changed. All children were given a right to 11 years of schooling. A huge programme was put in place to build the needed schools, expand and train tens of thousands of teachers as quickly as possible.
Curriculum development lagged. All children now had to sit Grade Seven examinations, but just in mathematics and English, although the core primary syllabus was expanded. Soon reforms started placing more emphasis on ensuring that all children learned an indigenous language properly.
At first, focus was on the major one in their area, but in later years there was the option of their own mother tongue if this was different, and then breaking the artificial barriers between the old content subjects and combining them into what became the general paper syllabus.
However, that general paper, although an advance, was deficient in introducing scientific concepts and developing scientific and technology mindsets. The old British upper class disdain for science was still there, with science being a sort of extra done by swots at high school. This was finally addressed in this century.
The old general paper curriculum was expanded and split again, this time on logical lines. Science and technology were introduced gradually, with agriculture chosen as the technology subject that could be used to start from the familiar to move forward into the main concepts. This made sense. An overwhelming majority of pupils either lived on farms or still had very close contact with family on farms, and even the most urbanised minority were familiar with vegetable gardens and growing things.
The latest reforms take this a step further, expanding the “fifth subject” of agriculture to bring in more of the needed scientific and technology concepts and introduce everyone to modern ICT technology.
The important point here is the building of understanding in concepts. Technology changes rapidly, but a person who has been through an education system that starts with familiar applied science, which is what agriculture should be, and then uses that to show the underlying concepts and mindsets and shows other applications of those concepts, is far better prepared for the modern world.
The old general paper has now been split into two. The old content is now extended to include applications of the concepts, rather than just memorising a bunch of facts for an examination. So even young children start learning how to draw lessons from these facts, and how to apply them. Again it is a mindset. Technology is said to be morally neutral, but those applying it need to know that it can be used for good or evil and must be able to learn, from other people’s mistakes, the difference.
It helps to integrate cultural concepts, that come from indigenous languages, and start teaching people that while a culture starts where you come from, you need to know how they develop and grow so you can play a positive role in that development.
The second part of the split is still a bit of a grab bag, arts and physical education, but introduces a degree of formality into something often seen as unimportant fun and play. Again, new concepts and competencies in creativity, understanding and teamwork are used to draw lessons.
The new curriculum is thus an effort to ensure that young children develop, as early as possible, an understanding of how things fit together and how to use that knowledge to develop themselves. It involves a major change in mindsets and develops new competencies. These are not just exam subjects. Exams are only useful to find out how you have absorbed the lessons and competencies, not an end in themselves.
The one potential danger, that additional subjects might crowd out the need for basic reading, writing and numeracy skills, has been avoided.
These are still stressed, and in fact, the rest of the primary syllabus is clearly built on the assumption that children have the most basic of all competencies at each required level. The necessary integration of concept and competency thinking is largely automatic at primary level, since one teacher teaches all subjects, so can show how the bits fit together.
The new primary syllabus is, in many ways, more demanding and will require high levels of understanding and professionalism from teachers. However, teacher education has been continually upgraded over the last four decades. In a fast changing world people need to learn and understand concepts, and develop the thinking competencies that can take them forward. This is what the new curriculum develops.