Promising start across a minefield

Mike Kent

The tabloid newspapers have certainly had a field day with Jim Rose's primary curriculum proposals. "Back to the hotch potch of the Sixties", "Our children let down once again", "Have the politicians learned nothing at all?" they cry. Even the saner columnists have been having a pop. It is easier to knock the proposals than consider carefully what they might mean.

Primary teachers, however, are broadly enthusiastic. Most agree that a carefully constructed, integrated curriculum for young children is a sensible idea, and it will fit neatly with the changes in the early years agenda.

The trouble is politicians take notice of the press, and with it hollering about the imminent death of geography and history, will they cock it all up again? Probably. Even if they don't, the whole thing is still a potential minefield.

The insistence on ever increasing dollops of information technology is the bit that worries me. I wonder if Sir Jim knows how often the equipment fails, or how quickly it goes out of date, or how much a projector lamp costs ... especially if six go at once? At least I'll have retired by 2012, when the Government insists primary schools must have "managed electronic learning environments". Has nothing been learned from the shambles of the computerised health service? But hopefully, Sir Jim has taken careful stock of the things that work.

I have been in primary education so long, I have watched all sorts of fashions come and go ... and reappear, pretending to be something new.

I entered teaching at an interesting point. On my final practice, in 1960s Greenwich, each child in the class had a copy of the same book and took a turn in reading out some sentences. It was tough on those who could barely read, but at least reading was going on.

By that September, the Plowden report, Children and their Primary Schools, was revolutionising education in the shires, and the inner cities were expected to follow suit. The child was intended to be "the agent of his own learning", and it was assumed that if you surrounded children with books and equipment, their interests and enthusiasms would lead them virtually to educate themselves.

To a certain extent, it worked in the shires ... for children from homes where parents read to them, played them music and went walking in the fields with them. In tough, inner city schools, where far more structure was needed, it didn't work so well. Classrooms often resembled wet playtimes, teachers gave up in despair, and inner city children - those who most needed top quality teaching - often learned very little.

The sledgehammer of the national curriculum stopped all that. At least there was now structure, but it was unwieldy, overloaded, badly considered and constricting for innovative teachers.

Change after change followed and because teachers are inventive people, they have made it work tolerably well. It has never been completely right, though.

A child's primary years should be such an exciting time, filled with learning pleasure. At the moment, they are still ground down by interminable testing while their teachers run around like headless chickens, collecting masses of data, which merely wastes precious teaching and learning time.

The Government needs test results to persuade voters that education standards are continually rising. Despite the fact that Sats have now been totally discredited, this form of aggressive testing and insistence on number crunching is still with us. And that is what might destroy the new curriculum.

Sir Jim has got his work cut out. But he has made a promising start and I will watch with interest.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London.


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