The end of exploration

It could be said that teachers are very lucky these days. Just look at the vast number of ready-made lessons, resources and teaching materials available on the internet.

How different it all was when I began teaching. I remember being shown into my first classroom and told that if I hunted through the vast cupboard at the back, I'd probably find a box of white chalk, a few coloured chalks, some exercise books and a textbook or two. And that was it. It was down to me to create an entire teaching curriculum.

Nevertheless, I didn't find it hard. Most primary teaching in the 1960s was done through topics. For my first term I chose Australia and obtained a wealth of helpful material from the embassy in London. We learned about the country's history and geography, its animals, its culture, its music. We wrote frequently to pen pals in an Australian school. And, since there was a 16mm projector - cutting-edge technology at the time - we were even able to hire films.

In my second term, my topic was the cinema. We learned how it worked, visited a projection booth and interviewed cinema staff. Then the children wrote a script, constructed props and made a film about the nuisance of litter. They created their own sound effects and played instruments for the soundtrack. It was premiered to parents and shown to all the other classes, who wrote reviews of it. The children were utterly absorbed and so was I; it seemed to be primary education at its most exciting.

Looking back, it was a haphazard way of teaching. Fine if you were capable and conscientious, but not all were - and those teachers could get away with doing precious little. If they didn't fancy doing maths or PE, they could avoid it easily. There was little testing or accountability. When I became a headteacher and the first national curriculum arrived in the 1980s, I wasn't sorry or surprised. At least there would now be an agenda and a sense of progression. Yes, it was prescriptive, and the same curriculum would need to be taught year after year, but any teacher worth their salt would find inventive ways of approaching the subjects.

Alongside the new curriculum, the miracles of technology gradually came into schools: video recorders, computers, electronic whiteboards, laptops and tablets. If you wanted to show Vesuvius erupting, you no longer needed to haul a huge projector into your classroom; you simply found a clip on the internet.

With all this, these days primary school should be an exploratory delight. Instead, teachers are stressed beyond belief and working far too many hours. And an increasing number burn out and leave the profession after a few years. Levels are everything and much of the curriculum, especially anything creative, is put aside in the drive to raise them. Headteachers can lose their jobs on the turn of a percentage or two, and their anxiety rapidly filters down to harassed staff.

Five years down the line, the politicians might realise what a mess they've made of it all, but how awful that so many vital opportunities have already been lost.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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