My grandson has just changed his primary school. It appears that towards the end of last term, half-way through a literacy lesson, he closed his book and decided that enough was enough. He is not yet seven, but even after his short experience of reading, it had all become a bit of a bore.
He seems to enjoy his new school more. Not because they have no literacy hour, but because, to use his own words: "We do other things as well."
What seems to be happening is that he now does more history, geography, music, art, and design and technology. In short, more of the foundation subjects. I think he is fortunate, for since the relaxation of the national curriculum regulations, and the introduction of the literacy hour, many schools have not been able, or willing, to give time to these subjects.
To find if this anecdotal evidence has any substance I am carrying out a survey among our students to find out how much of my subject, design and technology, is taught in schools. So far I have found that this once major foundation subject is often relegated to one short session a week. Even worse, it may be shared with other subjects and is often indistinguishable from them.
This need not matter, if the children are allowed to do genuine cross-curricular projects. If, however, this sharing of the time is merely an administrative short cut, then subjects such as design and technology suffer. Making a clay or Plasticine pot is surely art, although some schools may designate it as technology. Where is the design drawing, the simple electronics and mechanics, the construction work that should be a major part of technology?
Although my survey was about design and technology, colleagues tell me that their subjects do not seem to fare much better. Even time for physical education has been reduced, in some schools.
Not so long ago you could walk into any primary school and know that you would see children painting or drawing, or hear them singing. Today you are more likely to see them with a pencil in hand, poring over a set book.
The literacy hour, although prescriptive, can present teachers with many new ideas about the teaching of language. One useful innovation is the attention given to non-fiction books. Children are asked to pay critical attention to these as well as their reading books. Nevertheless, I was told by a publisher only last week that sales to schools of non-fiction had dried up.
From my observations, this seems to be the result of the emphasis on the core subjects, and in particular English and maths. Schools feel they are unable to offer practical subjects, which are seen to be peripheral.
If we only have time for the core subjects schools may become institutions for basic training. It is as if we are seeing all primary education in remedial terms, so that for the first major stage in their education all children must be treated as if they were in some way inherently disadvantaged.
How can we find the time to teach a full and balanced curriculum? As a school governor I am charged with this responsibility, but I know only too well how difficult it is. Even before the national curriculum, schools had problems introducing science into the timetable, but they managed.
There are still many schools that produce good work in foundation subjects; we must learn from them. Only the other day I read about such a school in the latest edition of DATA, the journal of the Design and Technology Association. It would seem that in this school a Damp;T project involves the children in drawing on other curriculum areas, such as maths, science and art.
At present schools teach the literacy hour every day. Has it not occurred to anyone that three days out of five might be enough? Two days without it would give a far more flexible timetable.
One of the strengths of design and technology is that it lies at the centre of the curriculum. It has much in common with art, but it includes much science. It has close links with maths, history, geography and even religious education.
Language can also benefit. I have often seen children who have great difficulties with reading find their motivation through another subject. They may visit the library, often for the first time, to discover more about their project.
If, because of the pressures of the literacy and, soon, numeracy hours, schools are unable to find time for the foundation subjects, then we will all suffer.
Matthew Arnold, as an inspector of schools, reported in 1880 that there were only three subjects that were obligatory in the elementary school: reading, writing and arithmetic. However, he went on to report that this was a much more restricted curriculum than was found in other schools and listed subjects that should also be taught. These were poetry, natural science, geography, music, religious instruction, needlework, cookery, technical and physical education. For older children he also included history and, for some, a foreign language.
He would quote Comenius, whom he considered to be a forgotten but wise school reformer: "The aim is to train generally all who are born men (and women), to all which is human."
John Williams is a senior lecturer in the school of education at Anglia Polytechnic University