Like loosening the belt after a rich and heavy meal, many primary schools are beginning to feel they can breathe a little more easily with the slimmed-down national curriculum.
However, many are as yet reluctant to commit themselves to a defined programme for using the 20 per cent of the teaching week freed from the national curriculum under the Dearing Review.
This winter a small team of Her Majesty's Inspectors has been visiting key stage 2 classes to gain an insight into how schools are coping with transfer and continuity of curriculum and assessment between key stages 2 and 3. Although they are studying the core subjects of English, maths and science in particular, they are also looking at how primary schools are using discretionary time.
OFSTED stressed that this was merely "light-touch monitoring" of the implementation of the revised curriculum and that no publication was planned as yet. However, early findings imply that while many schools are using the time to work on the core subjects, others are introducing specific initiatives. One school visited by inspectors had started Year 6 with a modern foreign language, another was using discretionary time to extend personal and social education, while yet another was using it to enhance cross-curricular activities and had introduced an environmental project.
A recent publication by the National Foundation for Educational Research, Education for Life: The Cross-Curricular Themes in Primary and Secondary Schools, which maps current practice in schools regarding the five cross-curricular themes of environmental education (health, citizenship, economic and industrial understanding, and careers education and guidance) found that generally primaries were certainly not making more time for this work.
Seventy per cent of the 423 primary schools surveyed said they would use discretionary time to concentrate on the basic skills of literacy or numeracy. Nearly 40 per cent said the time would be used for national curriculum subjects. A few respondents said "there was no such thing" as discretionary time, or that the notional time would make no difference in practice.
Ian Plewis, senior research officer at the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of Education, believes that Sir Ron Dearing had underestimated the time needed in primary schools for procedural matters such as lining children up for lunch or taking them to the loo, taking the register and basic administrative duties. He said: "I think it is going to be very difficult for primary teachers in particular to find this 20 per cent."
In his report Where Does All the Time Go? Changes in infant pupils' experiences since the Education Reform Act, which takes a sample of 173 Year 2 pupils from 22 inner London schools, Ian Plewis points out that the Dearing recommended time allocations for all subjects plus PE of 204 minutes each day was more than the 185 minutes his team recorded schools actually spending.
However, Liz Paver, a member of the National Association of Head Teachers' national council and the headteacher of Intake First School, Doncaster, said discretionary time gave schools a bit more flexibility in pursuing priorities. She said: "The imaginative approach was being squeezed out. Now I probably have the time to have the poet in for a day and to use all that lovely enriched language throughout the school. But the alleged 20 per cent can raise false hopes if we are not careful. It certainly doesn't mean that we've got Fridays free."
Pat Jefferson, president of the National Association of Inspectors, Advisers and Educational Consultants, is the early-years chief inspector for North Tyneside. Under the new OFSTED framework for inspection, inspectors are required to explore how schools use discretionary time and to what extent that contributes to high standards and quality.
She confirmed the overall impression that many schools were ploughing additional time back into English and maths. When many schools still spend no more than eight minutes a week on reading with each child "it validates the thinking and experience of the majority of primary schools who wish to devote more time to basic skills."
However, some schools had taken distinct initiatives in the creative arts and sport. One school on the North Tyneside coast had decided that all of its children had the right to be confident and safe in the water and that discretionary time should be spent on swimming lessons. Mrs Jefferson said: "Schools are being thoughtful and realistic and are looking carefully at the needs of their children."
She felt there should be more dissemination of good practice on the use of discretionary time. "There is a growing demand from schools for advice and support. I think we should actively promote options for primary schools by targeting good projects in schools that can then be given some national status," she said.
Hugh Protheroe, a registered inspector and educational consultant in Oxfordshire, said that those headteachers adept at monitoring and evaluating what goes on in their schools, would be clearer about the extra time available and what to do with it.
He said: "To say there isn't any extra time begs the question about how heads are analysing what they are teaching. Canny heads are saying: 'We will find the time'. By being selective and creative and concentrating on learning, they can incorporate the basics into other activities. Those with a positive frame of mind are seeing benefits in the new Orders."