A little creativity will answer the culture call

22nd February 2008 at 00:00

The Government's new `five-hour' cultural and sporting initiatives can be absorbed into existing timetables, reports Irena Barker

All schools should provide their pupils with five hours of culture a week, the Government announced last week.

"We want to see how we can embed creativity much more systematically," said Andrew Adonis, schools minister, summing up the official line.

But the new initiatives, which at first glance seem to present a headache for timetablers, may not prove too bad in practice. The government idea comes hot on the heels of a whole raft of other ambitious goals: offering pupils five hours of sport a week to combat the "obesity time bomb"; compulsory cookery lessons to promote healthy eating; finance sessions to prepare children for a lifetime of debt management; citizenship classes to inculcate Britishness; and carbon emissions education to help them save the planet.

Also to be squeezed into the timetable is the social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal) programme, extended from primary into secondary schools, which aims to promote happiness, wellbeing and manners among the nation's unruly youth.

In addition, schools must remember their duty to provide a daily act of collective worship of a mainly Christian nature, and religious education.

And let's not forget that Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, also wants "a relentless focus on the basics", as well as history, geography, science, foreign languages and information and communications technology. Tot that up and the school timetable begins to look rather packed.

These announcements come as the Government says it is freeing up the key stage 3 curriculum to give teachers more flexibility in what they teach.

Meanwhile, the introduction of the 14-19 diplomas, which involve extensive collaboration and pupil travel between schools and further education colleges, could also put an extra strain on the school week.

Experts say that the growing pressure to introduce generalist teaching at Year 7 has also resulted in subject departments losing specialist staff - another puzzle for those putting timetables together.

But in practice there are creative ways of incorporating these new requirements into your existing timetables.

Only two of the five hours of culture actually need to take place within school time, and a creative writing activity in a standard English lesson will count towards it.

With PE, only two hours have to take place in school time - something that already occurs in 80 per cent of schools. The rest is down to local leisure centres and clubs.

As Peter Wilby, the journalist and TES columnist, argues, many new additions to the curriculum are more about headline-grabbing than anything else: "Schoolchildren `must take cookery classes to tackle obesity'" announced The Daily Telegraph last month; "Children to get lessons in money - and debt" said The Times last year, as the global credit crunch began to rear its head.

"If you added up the various requirements, it would be more than a child's waking hours," Mr Wilby said.

"These schemes are often just a reaction to something in the news; the Government just has to find something to say about it."

Many heads are taking a phlegmatic approach, saying that as long as exam results are the bottom line, a lot of these schemes will not amount to much change on the ground.

Dennis Richards, head of St Aidan's High in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, said: "Teachers shouldn't really panic when they hear about these initiatives. Sadly, these well-meaning schemes can be largely ignored. Ofsted is now such a data-driven process that there is little focus on them.

"Only if Ofsted suddenly said they weren't worried about the figures would we have to worry about lessons in healthy eating."

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, commenting on the culture announcement, agreed: "None of this is going to happen in an already overcrowded timetable where the emphasis is on test results and school league tables."

Another factor taking the sting out of the plethora of initiatives is that most schools already run their own cultural activities programmes if they have detected a local need.

Robert Henney, head of Monega Primary in Newham, east London, said: "Personally, I find some of these additions to the curriculum insulting, and often the announcements are trite.

"If we think something is necessary, we introduce it. For example, we have been doing aspects of the Seal programme, such as self-esteem groups, for many years. It's just good practice.

"Likewise, we didn't need ministers to prompt us to get together with the BBC to help pupils take a week off the timetable to produce video animations."

But confident heads in successful schools should spare a thought for those struggling under pressure from Ofsted.

John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said: "Because these schools are under such close scrutiny, they are the ones that end up suffering overload as they try to tick all the boxes.

"But thankfully, most schools realise you can't fit a quart into a pint pot. You can't do everything."

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