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Cut the 5-14 shackles

Many teachers feel their autonomy and creativity are threatened as guidelines become more prescriptive, says Peter Tarrant

Isn't it great that here in Scotland we don't have a national curriculum? It would be so restrictive and inhibiting if we were denied enough autonomy to implement government guidelines in our own individualistic way. What kind of job would it be if creativity and the invaluable resource of teacher personality were replaced by a prescriptive, narrow, content-based programme of work.

Our guidelines to the curriculum are surely a model for other countries to envy - giving a framework in which creativity, emotional intelligence, citizenship and enterprise can flourish, unconstrained by a constant barrage of new curriculum endlessly squeezed into less class contact time, like refuse into an already overflowing rubbish bin.

Or am I deluded?

Speak to most primary teachers and they would say that these opening remarks are nonsense. They may be called curriculum guidelines, but 5-14 has recently taken on the mantle of our national curriculum. Worse still, in their efforts to reach government targets and continuously create "evidence of improvement", education authorities have devised programmes of work which "relieve the class teacher of the pressures of interpreting 5-14". Sadly, it also means that many teachers feel their autonomy and their creativity are threatened, their professionalism undermined.

Many teachers feel that, under the guise of a common diet for all primary school pupils, the soul has been taken out of teaching. Where once there was scope for a teacher's enthusiasm and personality, interpreting the guidelines and coming up with a topic to thrill and inspire the class, we now have "off the shelf" packs.

We have programmes created, often by another authority, which, if followed to the letter, will ensure a coverage of all the significant strands.

Within individual schools we now have programmes which will ensure that every year the primary 4 corridor will display the same art lessons - it's just the names of the pupils that will change.

Where did it all go wrong? Many teachers initially resisted the introduction of 5-14, before seeing it as it was intended, a tool to unlock the creative potential of the staff, of the learning environment. After a while, teachers realised that they could teach whatever they wanted, as long as they could justify it in terms of 5-14. That art lesson they saw on television; that topic about Peru; that book they read on the Clearances - all could be utilised.

Teachers were trusted to make these decisions. Teachers had the responsibility and were trusted to understand their pupils, to understand what would motivate and inspire them. Teachers were trusted to deliver a holistic education, making connections, having a focus on the children's interests and needs - all within a local context. Where did it all go?

As we move towards another set of changes in education, with the review of "what we teach" and "how we assess it", perhaps it is time to take stock.

Why must change always be inflicted on teachers? Coming top down like a lead balloon? Why not start from the grass roots, from hard-working practitioners who know that the most important task is to foster a love of learning; from teachers who know how to motivate and inspire, whatever they are teaching; from teachers who know that creativity, expression, emotional intelligence, "critical skills" are far more important than the formal curriculum.

I am not advocating anarchy, just a little bit more leeway. The creative approach to the national guidelines provides plenty of scope for variety - yet maintains a standard of curricular knowledge that we can be proud of.

Instead of banging the drum of academic attainment louder and louder, we should be tuning up the rest of the orchestra, allowing variety and individualism to filter through and to flourish.

Less pressure should be put on schools and staff to conform, to programme the context and content of their educational "wisdom". More should be made of the diversity of the educational possibilities. More should be made of the variety of ways we can deliver 5-14. Teachers should be set free with the guidelines. Not shackled to the prescriptive programmes.

Peter Tarrant is depute head at Roslin primary in Midlothian and is currently seconded to Edinburgh University as a teaching fellow.

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