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Look back in wonder

Primary heads took their pupils way beyond the curriculum this year with samba bands and musicals

As the school year moves to a close, what do primary heads look back on with satisfaction? I rang some to find out.

The first, immediate response had nothing to do with tests and targets.

Sometimes they came later in the conversation, but the opener was invariably to do with achievements outside the strategies and the core curriculum. The arts figured strongly, for example, and I picked up a very real feeling that music and drama are on their way back in a big way.

I spoke to two schools that took part this year in professionally-led workshops on Bizet's Carmen - Harrington Hill primary in Hackney, whose children studied the opera with Children's Music Workshop, and Telscombe Cliffs primary in East Sussex, which worked on it with the Glyndebourne company.

Telscombe Cliffs head Derek Lovell says: "It's been so good to see the real development of the arts in school again.

"As well as the work with Glyndebourne we did the musical, The Emerald Crown, and the choir has been revived. We've taken part in the Brighton Festival, and we've started a samba band."

Harrington Hill also reports the birth of a samba band, and reflecting its commitment to breadth of opportunity, also now has a fully-fledged orchestra. Head Kae McSweeney says: "It was the thing I most wanted when I came 13 years ago and now we have one, with strings, thanks to the support of Hackney music service, who've been brilliant."

Two more heads whose initial thoughts lay beyond the core curriculum are Pam Marston at Falconers Hill junior in Daventry, Northamptonshire, and David Dixon at Bowbridge primary in Newark, Nottinghamshire.

For Pam Marston it has been the maturing of the school council that has pleased her most. "We opened up some new play equipment this term that they earned all the money for. When they ask for something and it gets done, then it snowballs."

The key, she says, has been the appointment of a full-time pupil mentor - a teaching assistant who meets the elected school council every week. "She was appointed in January the previous year," says Mrs Marston, "but this year she's been really strong. She's a good link with the parents."

Over in Newark, David Dixon has been pursuing two linked priorities - developing Bowbridge as a true "extended school" and putting sustainability high on the agenda.

"The best thing we've managed to achieve this year," he says, "is to make education for sustainability really embedded in the curriculum, so that staff are beginning to see the potential for cross-curricular working".

David is encouraging his colleagues to take the WWF's 30-week online course in education for sustainable development. "I've done it myself," he says.

"The certificate's on my wall."

The most heartfelt cry of joy came from Mary Carney, head of St Mary Magdalen Catholic junior in Brent. "We've had some wonderful news," she says. "We're going to have a state-of-the-art new school and in time we won't have to work in this grotty building any longer."

She's not kidding when she says "grotty". The school's 2004 Ofsted report pays tribute to the standards achieved in a school building that's hopelessly inadequate to the point of being a hazard. It says: "The limitations of space are an insurmountable hurdle."

Not difficult to guess, then, what Mary Carney's answer was to the follow-up question about hopes for next year. "The start of our building programme. Every school I've been in has had a building project, so I'm well prepared for what's to come, but I will keep in my mind's eye the finished project and I can't wait to welcome our children into it."

David Dixon is also looking forward to the start of a building project that will eventually see Bowbridge in the new eco-friendly building that he has long been working and fighting for. "By this time next year we should be several months into the build," he says.

Other heads have ambitious plans for the curriculum - yet more evidence of optimism and a feeling of freedom from constraint. Kae McSweeney has been to Harvard to look at "Project Zero", an exciting approach to learning that she plans to use and adapt, together with other Hackney heads. "It's a real broad balanced curriculum where learning has a real purpose."

At Telscombe Cliffs primary, Derek Lovell has plans that, at least at first glance, seem to echo Kae McSweeney's. "We're changing to a skills-based curriculum," he says, "and we're going to mixed-age classes all the way through."

By contrast, over at Falconer's Hill, Pam Marston's hope for next year is simple, but she undoubtedly speaks for every one of her colleagues.

"It would be nice not to have any government initiatives arriving at the last minute with no time and no funding. It'd be a first, but you can always hope."

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