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Taste of the past as topics return

Famously demonised by the 'three wise men', 1970s-style themed learning is coming back, reports Helen Ward

Primary schools are returning to topic work as teachers struggle to squeeze the national curriculum into the day, a survey has found.

Almost two-thirds of teachers said their schools had made changes in the past two years with 31 per cent introducing a more theme-based curriculum.

The survey found 68 per cent of teachers felt they did not have time to cover the arts and humanities properly and 36 per cent thought they did not spend enough time on English, maths and science.

Teaching children through topics was popular in the 1970s as a way of motivating them by following their interests. Today's topic teaching aims to do this too but crucially also build in literacy, numeracy and other goals from the national curriculum.

Topics survived the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988, but were demonised in 1991 by the "three wise men", Professor Robin Alexander, Chris Woodhead and Jim Rose. Their report on the primary curriculum argued that pupils were being hampered by "highly questionable dogmas which have led to excessively complex classroom practices".

It said: "There is clear evidence to show that much topic work has led to fragmentary and superficial teaching and learning."

The final blow was delivered by the introduction of the national literacy and numeracy strategies which set out not only what to teach, but how to teach it.

But new-style topic work with rigorous planning was highlighted by Ofsted three years ago as a way of raising standards in English and maths while also providing children with a broad curriculum.

Almost all of the 97 teachers surveyed for the National Union of Teachers said the primary curriculum was overloaded.

A third said the national curriculum should be less prescriptive. "I like the idea of broad guidelines to subjects I should be teaching," said one teacher. "But the whole thing has become too prescriptive. I feel my 20 years of teaching experience is devalued."

Most (56 per cent) believed their school was not able to offer as many extra-curricular opportunities, such as working with artists or going on trips, as it would like.

One teacher said: "I would hate to be a child whose only experiences of the world were those provided by the national curriculum."

The national numeracy strategy was popular with a fifth of teachers, but only 12 per cent said the national literacy strategy was a strength. They said that expectations were too high, particularly for children who spoke other languages.

"The tests we are expected to ask the children to complete are too difficult," said one teacher. "Reading tests for seven and eight-year-olds contain references to 'venison' and 'politicians'."

Guidelines from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority suggest that primaries should spend up to 7.5 hours a week teaching English, five hours on maths, two hours on science, 75 minutes each for PE and RE and 55 minutes on each of the six other subjects.


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