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The finer things

Primary teachers have had a hard time, and need a boost. They have had to learn and teach an unwieldy national curriculum, administer over-ambitious tests, face the first inspections from the Office for Standards in Education, and all the while do their best for their pupils in the face of bigger classes and smaller budgets. That is why this Update is concentrating on the finer things in primary school life.

The central theme is "Not the National Curriculum". We are focusing on the creative, spiritual and artistic sides of primary education, and we have visited schools where these flourish.

While some schools have bowed under all the demands, with an inevitable impact on the arts, others have held on to what they believe in, keeping the creative arts, the development of personal qualities, relationships and spirituality at the heart of what they do. They know that creative arts are more than time-fillers and more than "servers" of other subjects. They are all intellectual pursuits, and when well-taught in primary schools, promote not only skills but an ability to think and work indepth and at length. These schools have made sure the national curriculum has addedto their repertoires, not subtracted from it.

This does not imply the "unquestioning and ultimately irrational" commitment to 1960s dogma which the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, condemned in his annual lecture in January. These schools know what they are doing and why, and are not blindly following some dimly-remembered, misunderstood injunctions from the Plowden Report.

Although art, drama, dance, music and poetry - all featured here - are in the national curriculum, their value also goes beyond it, and exemplifies the philosophy and spirit of many primary schools.

But from now on, schools will have to fight even harder to hold on to these aspects. As Bill Laar warns (page 16), the first official testing at 11 next month will have enormous consequences, which could prove to be either positive or negative, depending on how schools react. Quite a few have started to prepare children with "mock-SATs" and other test practice. The pressure of national curriculum assessment has already begun changing the way schools work, with more ability grouping, more formal teaching, more altogether packed into the working day. Is this good or bad? Only time will tell. Change is difficult, but can be positive, as long as central values can be retained.

Diane Hofkins

Editor, Primary Update

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