With national curriculum demands already filling the school day to overflowing, it may seem maso-chistic to try to shoe-horn in time for non curriculum topics, but one school in Kent has found that taking time out for "non-essential learning" has fired up staff and pupils alike.
Under the scheme, teachers at Slade Primary School in Tonbridge were asked to think up something that they would enjoy teaching to Years 3 to 6, for half an hour, four times a week.
A vital part of the brief was that the subjects should not require too much lesson planning, and so would not add significantly to teacher workload. "I thought that it would be nice to do something to enrich the curriculum for the children and staff, and remind everybody of the satisfaction of learning and teaching," says Viv Resch, headteacher.
Viv's idea reflects the impatience many school leaders feel with the way that the time allocated to core curriculum subjects can squeeze other topics off the timetable. Under the scheme, called personal development time (PDT), the staff have come up with nine subjects including country dancing, basic German, sign language, first aid and touch-typing.
Each junior class gets a two-week "slot" in a subject before moving on to the next one, with the scheme rotating so that pupils get a second "bite" at a topic later in the school year. The beauty of it, says Tracey Houghton, a teacher whose PDT subjects are first aid and safety, is that children are getting the chance to learn important everyday skills. "These are things we wouldn't get to do in any other bit of the curriculum. It's important to cover issues such as what you should do if there's a medical emergency, or how to stay safe at the seaside," she says.
Another benefit particularly relevant to Year 5 and Year 6 children is the opportunity to get a taste of what it will be like to have different teachers for different subjects once they are at secondary school. Most importantly, according to children, it's different, and it's fun.
"It's much more exciting than ordinary lessons," says Emmeline Palmer, nine, who is perched at a PC with her friend Rosie Scotton, grappling with the online touch-typing course. "I want to be able to touch-type for when I'm at secondary, because it helps you do your work better," she says.
Rosie is keener on the teamwork lessons, where groups of children work together to achieve certain tasks. Time was created by moving assembly to the end of the day, freeing up 30 minutes at 10am, after an initial session of literacy or maths. The idea is to change the pace and tone after a demanding bout of curriculum work.
The lesson slot is also used as an opportunity to withdraw SEN children for specialist interventions where needed. "It's a win-win situation; everyone gets something out of this the children, who are learning new skills and having fun, and the teachers, who enjoy teaching something different," says Sarah Bowles, head of key stage 2.
"By giving ourselves this little slot of 'free' time we are generating loads of unexpected benefits too," she says. "One boy, who is not a high-achiever normally, has shown amazing talent at touch-typing. He was so thrilled to be top of the class at something that he went home and told his parents, and his whole attitude in class has changed. He knows he is good at something that not everyone can do and it transformed his feelings about himself and about learning. *
It's all in the mix
It is vital to get staff onside. Get the relevant teachers together and brain storm ideas for topics they would enjoy teaching in PDT. Remember, these don't all have to be "improving" what you need is a mix.
Country dancing or learning songs from famous musicals makes a nice change from water safety or German. While staff should give some thought to how they are going to teach, the lessons shouldn't require much preparation adding to the workload will dampen teacher enthusiasm and take a lot of the fun out of sessions.
Work out how you are going to create your extra 30-minute slots, and how often. They need to be more than once a week to have maximum effect. The easiest option is altering the time and length of assembly, but there are other possibilities, such as shortening break times.
At Slade, time which used to be used for teacher-TA consultations is sacrificed on PDT days, but staff try to recoup it where they can. They have one day a week that is not affected.
Ask the children for ideas too. Go to them for feedback, and ask if there's anything they'd particularly enjoy learning. Snowboarding one suggestion offered recently at Slade may not be practical.