Linked learning gets off to a flying start

Suitcases in hand, wearing flip-flops and sunglasses, 90 excited six-year-olds at Balsall Common primary are filing into the hall chattering about their forthcoming holiday.

Chairs are set out as if on a plane and the children take their seats ready to "fly". When they "land", they make for the seaside - recreated at the 670-pupil Solihull primary with sandpits and paddling pools. This is how geography, history, art and personal, social and health education lessons begin under the theme "holidays" in Year 2.

Balsall Common is one of the most outstanding schools in the country, according to Ofsted. Its themed curriculum has taken two years to introduce and will be rolled out to Year 6 in September. Each theme begins with an entry day, such as Year 2's holiday flight, linked to the forthcoming work.

Chris Baker is assistant head and Year 4 teacher at the school. She said: "Themes make sense to the children. They like things to link together. It means they are constantly building on prior knowledge, rather than having to cast their minds back to what they learnt the previous week."

But maths, ICT, PE, French and RE are still taught separately.

Teaching through topics was widespread in the 1970s, but fell from favour after being criticised as leading to "superficial" learning. Primaries increasingly adopted a secondary-style subjects timetable, but in 2003, faced with key stage 2 results levelling out, the Government encouraged them to try new approaches.

Now visitors come to Balsall Common from schools around England almost every fortnight to find out how to create their own curriculum.

The school's curriculum is an amalgam of the International Primary Curriculum (see story below), Qualifications and Curriculum Authority resources and the staff's own ideas.

Children are taught to manage their own learning through the Building Learning Power approach developed by Professor Guy Claxton, of Bristol university.

The school also uses the Mantle of the Expert scheme, a drama-based approach developed in the 1980s, which involves creating an imaginary community to inspire children to seek out information.

So, when Year 4 began the theme "treasure", they became the Balsall Common Treasure Seekers. In this guise, they were contacted by Wilfred Green (played by Mrs Baker in a flat cap) who wanted the experts to tell him about an ankh he had found in the village hall loft.

Mrs Baker said: "They discovered the ankh was from ancient Egypt and decided to split into different departments to write reports about the ancient Egyptian way of life, religion, etc.

"Then they got a letter from the British Museum requesting the ankh and a fax from the Egyptian Embassy also asking for it."

The children discussed the dilemma and decided to give it to the British Museum, with Mr Green's blessing.

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