Talking shop;Questions and Answers;Problems

Former headteacher Sue Mulvany gets to the heart of issues that concern you

Q For the past three years we have included educational visits to places of worship used by people from a range of faiths. One of the things we have noticed, on reviewing our medium-term planning, is that the absence rate on the visit days is higher and fewer parents volunteer to help. We teach in an area of high social deprivation and our school serves an all-white population. What can we do to improve matters?

A First of all, carry on planning the curriculum as you do to include opportunities that culturally enrich pupils' lives - but make sure it's not all one-way traffic. Arrange for visitors and workers from other communities to spend time in your school working with pupils and parents. Create curriculum and social links between your pupils and those from a partner school that has a different cultural make up. Do joint training with their staff where appropriate.

Give lots of awards to pupils to reflect achievements. Explain to parents what you are doing and why. Work through the governors so that news of the exciting initiatives and the successes that come from them spread quickly through the community.

Deprivation can take many forms and the consequent narrowing of experiences can lead people to fear things that are new and to defend disproportionately the things they are used to. You may feel that what you can do to truly educate a community is just a drop in the ocean but, together with other agencies working in the same way, you can have a positive effect. If you have any doubts about whether it is worth the trouble, just think of Stephen Lawrence.

Q I am a core subject co-ordinator and teach a full timetable. We were inspected last year and, although the report was positive, there were a number of issues we had to address. The staff worked well together and all that remained as we broke for summer was for me to write up all the policy revisions, plans and monitoring schedules.

With the preparation for inspection and the general demands of middle management, I have not had a proper break for over 18 months. Although I've accomplished all the tasks, I feel I can't muster the energy needed to teach as I really want to. Any ideas?

A Everybody knows that teachers work during the holidays. The nice part is the release from the unremitting pressure of pupils and timetables. Sensible teachers also make sure that for some of the time that the children are not in school they have a complete break. They either go away or do something completely different, banishing all thoughts of school from their minds. If you have missed the opportunity to do these things then you must be truly exhausted.

As soon as possible plan a weekend that starts about suppertime on Friday and ends at breakfast time on Monday.

Go somewhere that is special for you - like the country or seaside. A short period of intensive relaxation can work wonders. Holidays and weekends are times for slowing down and sometimes stopping. Remember, improving your school can't be seen as a one-off set of actions. It's developmental, even though the pace of change might be fast.

Be kind to yourself. I'm sure if you did make a conscious effort to switch off at weekends you would be able to manage until the half-term break and then have a really good rest. You'll soon be back on form to meet the run-up to Christmas.

Q There are three teachers of early years in our school, two in reception and one in the nursery. Although we are all trained for the phase, we feel under pressure from the headteacher to start children reading and writing as early as possible. This is spreading to parents, some of whom expect us to get their children on a reading scheme within weeks of starting nursery. What can we do to stop this trend?

A As the curriculum that we offer to the youngest members of society is under review, it has never been more important for early years experts to share with others their knowledge and experience about how the very young learn and also what it is appropriate - and necessary - for them to learn.

The proposal to name this stage of learning the "foundation" is a good one but - like all foundations - it has to be built on rock, not sand. You must educate the head and the parents about the curriculum and environment you offer so they understand that children need to learn how to listen and observe, hear and speak, create stories in role-play and represent ideas with symbols. Children need to make mistakes and deal with the consequences. They must learn how to concentrate and sustain their endeavours.

However, you also need to acknowledge that some very young children are able to read and write before theory says that they should.

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