A crisis of creativity and imagination?

9th May 2003 at 01:00
THE writer Philip Pullman is no stranger to controversy. The award-winning author of The Amber Spyglass is second only to J K Rowling in sales to the crossover child-adult market. But he is equally well-known as a target of vilification for the religious lobby. They describe him as the most dangerous author in Britain and cite the example of his trilogy, His Dark Materials, where he kills off God in the final volume, replacing him with "the republic of heaven".

Pullman reserves his hostility for C S Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Narnia books are Lewis's best known work and are central to fondly remembered childhoods for generations of middle Britain. Pullman describes Lewis as "blatantly racist" and "monumentally disparaging of women" and regards the Narnia books as "propaganda in the cause of the religion he (Lewis) believed in". So much for the Christ-like figure of Aslan the Lion.

So much for the religious lobby.

But Philip Pullman is also a former middle-school teacher and, in a recent lecture, set about the present state of education. He reckons that "a culture of anxiety - almost of fear" hangs over schools. He places the blame on tests and league tables which encourage a dry and unadventurous curriculum. Teachers lose their freedom and become little more than curriculum technicians. Liberalise the curriculum and feed the imagination through storytelling and drama if we want to give children a real education, says Pullman.

From this side of the border, we fail to appreciate how inflexible and prescriptive English primary schools have become. Our present national tests have weaknesses but we need something. The best self-evaluation procedures in the world are not enough if they are missing an objective element. Before national testing, schools had no idea how well they were doing. Some headteachers bought standardised tests to fill the gap. Many didn't even know there was a gap.

Pullman's assertion of the English curriculum being driven by fear seems accurate - fear of a lowly position in a league table, fear of public condemnation by the inspectors. The fear reaches the children, too, going by BBC Online's recent letters from year 6 parents and the TES poll last week which described stressed and tearful pupils. No wonder, when schools expect them to turn up for twilight "booster" classes and W H Smith sells thousands of copies of practice papers to their parents each year.

Even Marks and Spencer has a display of own-label revision papers beside the school jumpers and gym shorts. And there's BBC Bitesize revision too. I can't see any of our level D pupils watching television to check up on their grasp of percentages, nor would we ask them to.

But let's not be complacent. The 5-14 curriculum is still a list of outcomes and targets to be overtaken. Imagination and creativity are easily lost in a teacher's rush to tick off her list. Philip Pullman talks of "a sad state of affairs when a profession isn't trusted and has to be told exactly what to do and how to do it: it means it is a profession no longer".

Control has been an unspoken but key theme of Scottish education during the past 20 years. The government and local authorities have increased their control over schools and headteachers exert greater control over teachers.

All is done in the name of accountability and of continuity and progression.

Control leads to unadventurous teaching and the mania for wasting time by writing everything down. It leads to "approved" methods of teaching and organising a classroom. It leads to discouragement of individual teaching styles. We are urged to provide for differences in children, yet differences in teachers are feared.

Let's hear more from Philip Pullman. We need former teachers who still have a sympathy for the classroom to help us look at ourselves.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary school, Perth.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today