Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools (1992)

Three Wise Men Report (complete)

Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools: A discussion paper (1992)

London: Department of Education and Science 1992
Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.

Notes on the text


The 'Three Wise Men Report', as it was popularly known, was produced by Robin Alexander, Jim Rose and Chris Woodhead (pictured) at the request of Education Secretary Kenneth Clarke.

Robin Alexander has taught in schools, colleges and universities, served on government advisory bodies, and written extensively on education. In 2004 he initiated the largest enquiry into primary education since Plowden - the Cambridge Primary Review - which he still directs.

Jim Rose held two primary headships before joining HM Inspectorate, where he became Chief Inspector of Primary Education. He went on to become Director of Ofsted. He retired from Ofsted in July 1999 and has since led several government inquiries including the 'Rose Review' of the Primary Curriculum in 2009.

In the early 1990s Chris Woodhead was Chief Executive of the National Curriculum Council and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. As the first head of Ofsted, from 1994 to 2000, his constant criticism of teachers and 'progessive' teaching methods earned him few friends in the profession.

In April 1992 Conservative prime minister John Major was facing his first general election, and was widely expected to lose.

He decided that a return to streaming and more formal teaching methods in primary schools would be a popular campaign policy, so in February 1992 education secretary Kenneth Clarke (pictured) commissioned Alexander, Rose and Woodhead to produce a report which the government hoped would call for a return to traditional methods.

Written in just one month, the report certainly caused much controversy. Teachers who had been brought up on Plowden regarded it as an attack on their most dearly-cherished values and practices. The two reports shared some things in common, however. Both were products of their age - Plowden, the progressive sixties; Alexander, Rose and Woodhead, the new age of National Curriculum subjects and testing. Both, too, were widely misquoted and misrepresented.

Whether the publication of the Three Wise Men Report affected the outcome of the election (Major narrowly won) is open to debate. It was certainly not, as Major and Clarke had hoped, a resounding endorsement of traditionalist views.

The report online

The formatting of the text (bold, italics, centred etc) is a reasonably accurate representation of the printed version, but the pages presented here are not exact facsimiles of the original: the font (Times, Arial etc) and size of print - and therefore the number of words to a line and lines to a page - are determined by the settings you have chosen for your web browser. However, the page breaks are correct. In other words, if something is shown here as being on, say, page 103, you can be sure it appeared on page 103 in the original.

Anything added to the text by way of explanation is shown [in square brackets].

Summary of the report's conclusions and recommendations

  • there is evidence of falling standards in some important aspects of literacy and numeracy;
  • Piaget's notion of 'learning readiness', as set out in the Plowden Report, is dubious and the progress of primary pupils has been hampered by the influence of highly questionable dogmas;
  • the teacher should be an instructor rather than a facilitator;
  • teachers should use a range of organisational strategies including individual and group teaching, but there should be more use of whole class teaching;
  • while there is a place for well-planned topic work, more emphasis should be put on the subjects of the National Curriculum;
  • pupils should be grouped by ability in subjects (setted) rather than as a whole class (streamed) but teachers must avoid the pitfall of assuming that pupils' ability is fixed;
  • many primary teachers are not equipped to teach subjects effectively and there is an acute shortage of specialist expertise;
  • there should be greater flexibility in the deployment of staff as specialists, generalists, semi-specialists and generalist-consultants;
  • there should be more specialist teaching in the upper years of Key Stage 2;
  • initial training, induction and in-service training should all take account of these needs;
  • heads should set and monitor INSET policies, should lead by example, and should teach;
  • the National Curriculum should be regularly reviewed to ensure that it makes appropriate demands on pupils of different ages and abilities and that it is manageable in terms of the time, resources and professional expertise available in schools.

The 1992 Three Wise Men Report and the above notes were prepared for the web by Derek Gillard. The report was uploaded on 5 March 2007; the revised notes on 20 November 2012.

Three Wise Men Report (complete)