A modest millennium proposal

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Bill Laar spells out his five-point plan for taking primary schools into the 21st century-with a once-in-a-thousand- years price-tag Early in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai there is an exchange between two of the protagonists that endures in the memory. The captive British colonel sees, for the first time, the fatal bridge, rearing above the ravine, covered with frantic workers, like a cake crawling with ants. Surveying it with an engineer's eye, he tells the camp commander that in the end the bridge will simply fall down because the labourers at either end are unwittingly working against each other.

Now to go on from that for a moment, to what I shall call the millennium bridge, that metaphorical gangway being prepared to take us over from one epoch to another.

It is difficult to avoid the sense of a growing millennium fever, of a determination not to let the occasion pass lightly. There is talk of national and international events, of sites selected and being prepared. Politicians are planning for the crucial gesture, the memorable stance, the definitive charter. The frivolously rich are there as well, with arrangements for the bashes and the thrashes to end all parties.

But one senses too, for many people, a growing sense of awe, a dawning realisation that destiny has placed them at the cusp of time.

It will be no occasion for modestly-expressed ambitions or faltering declarations. Those who determine such things are making it clear that a new millennium calls for something on the grand scale.

It seemed to me, therefore, that education should not be found wanting at this time; that we might propose something on its behalf.

I shall confine my suggestion to primary education because it straddles the two epochs in a notable way. Like other colleagues in the state system, primary teachers work with a new national curriculum designed for the 21st century. But let's have no illusions about it. They are still overwhelmed by it, find it difficult to operate as a model for young children, blame its relentless pressure for restricting their spontaneity and creativity.

However, even the most implacable would hesitate now to deny children access to its rich entitlement. Most can see the value there; it is just that many are doubtful whether it can be mined.

In fact parts of the curriculum are beginning to detach themselves and are being allowed to drift away like ice floes from the main mass; not because teachers won't teach, and certainly not because children cannot learn, but because an absence of time, resources and expenditure makes it well nigh impossible to hold on to every element.

Which brings us back to the unique position of primary education, stretching in effect across two eras: a system still based on the 19th century elementary school "one teacher, one class" model struggling to provide a 21st century curriculum. As systems go this was fine when schools were required to do little more than fit children for the circumscribed demands of Victorian pastoral or industrial life. Indeed the system continued to work through a new century, so long as teachers were free in significant respects to be selective about what they taught.

A statutory national curr-iculum that had to be taught in its entirety, underpinned by standardised testing, changed all that. And so we have the dilemma of the primary system, the Kwai Bridge syndrome, where the forces that construct it are actually in opposition to each other. It's not that teachers won't teach it; they simply can't. They do not have the expertise for the curriculum needs of a whole class, the resources or the time. The national curriculum is beginning to buckle and bits are dropping off.

There are a number of ways in which we could tackle this, assuming that we still accept children's entitlement to a full and appropriate curriculum. But I want to focus on a particular one here, my millennium proposal. It concerns a simple experiment: * invite every LEA in the country to nominate one two-form-entry primary or junior school. Ensure that the sample is nationally representative; * allocate to each school four primary-trained and experienced teachers, who would offer individual specialisms in one of the core subjects and any other one in Years 4, 5, and 6; * have the specialist teachers timetabled to teach with "generalist" class teachers; * support each class with a trained full-time classroom assistant; * monitor and evaluate the project.

And the outcomes? We could see the national curriculum in the proper light and learn what children could really do if they were enabled to respond to it. Well, of course, it will be said that skilled teachers working in such circumstances could not but succeed. Precisely. At the dawn of the millennium that statement alone would be all that needs to be made on the part of primary education. If we are serious about it achieving what it has to, the system has to be changed.

But, it will be protested, the cost of such an experiment would be prohibitive. True: probably about Pounds 120 million (though my calculations are suspect since I would struggle to teach level 5 maths).

However, couldn't we be indulged for once, just for the millennium. After all, it's only once in a thousand years!

The source of income? Well, what about trying the National Lottery? And if you think such an appeal misplaced, just wait and see the nature and quality of some of the beneficiaries and the extent to which they are indulged.

Sir Alec Clegg was fond of quoting a reference that Michelangelo brought with him to Rome. It stated he was an artist who worked well and honestly whatever the circumstances; it went on to claim that, given the treatment and resources he deserved, he would do things that would astound the world. Let's try it with a handful of primary teachers and their children - just for the millennium.

* Bill Laar is a registered inspector and an education consultant

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