A way out of the mish-mash;Platform;Comment;Opinion

10th April 1998 at 01:00
Finding the existing 5 to 14 programme seriously flawed, Adrian Grant offers his own solutions.

As a secondary teacher mainly of social subjects, the main thrust of the 5-14 programme passed over me. Subject demarcation meant taking little notice until environmental studies appeared. As my responses to the consultation document were largely taken into account, I ended up broadly satisfied with it.

But when, dissatisfied with the product of the primary school process, I began to look further - to the overall programme - I discovered just how incoherent a mishmash 5-14 really is.

The 5-14 designers ignored the structure of the primary school day and primary class size. They failed to address existing problems of class structures and methods. Primaries operate on the basis of 3 x 100-minute periods a day, to which their teachers do not see a viable or desirable alternative, and with classes of around 30, which will not be reduced significantly, however desirable that might be.

But the planners based 5-14 on secondary school subject specialisms and the idea of 5 per cent of the time on X and 15 per cent on Y (reflecting the now largely superseded secondary school 40 x 40-minute period week).

This creates a huge amount of preparation work for the teacher in trying to ensure that each subject gets its right proportion of time. The planners ignored class size, recommending - tantamount to requiring - methods which can be effective only with a classroom assistant or with classes of 15 or fewer, thereby placing teachers in the invidious position of ignoring the guidelines or implementing chaos.

Pupils are very hard to organise as a group because their rates of maturation vary so much, not only one from another but also for any one pupil from time to time. Ability in one subject or subject area can vary very much from ability in another: many of those who are good at English, for example, are poor at maths. The lack of opportunity for individual teachers to take account of this is grossly exacerbated both by lack of resources and by obsolete and naive ideology.

Dogmatic commitments make schools inflexible: for example through a misunderstanding of Rudolf Steiner principles about a "class teacher" the number of teachers a pupil has contact with is minimised at all costs. And there is an "ageist" keeping together of all pupils in an arbitrary age cohort. The result is the so-called "integrated day" whereby each group within the classroom is of random or "mixed" ability and cannot function effectively. So frustrated are many primary teachers about this that de facto "setting" is increasingly taking place, for example in maths where particular pupils may be abstracted to work with a different class.

The 5-14 guidelines, as a grand strategy, should have addressed this problem. But no, there remains devotion to same-age mixed-ability teaching groups. The range of effective methods available to the class teacher is reduced virtually to zero by the strictures of class organisation. Whole-class teaching is rendered impossible by the heterogeneous mixture in the class. Grouping within the class by ability is rendered impossible by lack of resources. Group discussions are restricted by the inability of any teacher to be in five places at once. Individualised work is impossible due to the sheer numbers involved. Thus much of the teachers' energy and thinking time are devoted to trying to address the practical impossibility of giving adequate time to a large number of pupils with very individual needs.

Pupils deserve the right to acquire the skill of paying attention over a protracted time. They should be grouped homogeneously enough for the teacher to be able to attend to their individual needs. Group work is only valid when each member of the group has a real contribution to make, yet in practice this is rarely the case. "Discovery" methods do not imply asking pupils to reinvent the wheel. The 5-14 strategists should have discussed how to organise teaching and learning in the ideal situation and, constrastingly, in the real classroom world. Instead they exploited teachers' excessive obedience and willingness to be trendy.

What 5-14 should have said: In devising a better curriculum structure computer programmers provide the paradigm for the solution of complex problems: stepwise refinement.

Thus 5-14 should have started with a three-way division of the curriculum to match the three-way division of the primary school day.

Division 1: Language. This third of the curriculum would include English, Scots, foreign languages and religious education (English has traditionally dealt with philosophical ideas). Its expressive arts component would be drama and singing.

Division 2: Number, pattern and logic. This third would include maths and its associated expressive arts: art and design and instrumental music playing and composition. I would add the study of thinking skills (following the lead of Edward de Bono) and chess and draughts.

Division 3: Science. This third component would include the current environmental studies area, personal and health studies and fitness. Its associated expressive arts are physical education and dance. Any attempt to inveigle other "subjects" into the curriculum would be not as a "bolt on" but integrated into one of these major divisions.

Among other advantages any necessary trade-offs would be explicit. This plan is consistent with the proposed balance of the curriculum. Computers are just another classroom tool and should be used throughout the curriculum as far as resources allow. Pupils personal and social development should be monitored and commented on in each division separately.

Primary class structure The tripartite division of the curriculum would allow all the pupils in the school (I would start in P2) to be put in separate teaching groups in number and language according to their attainment, but irrespective of age.

While the principal criterion would be attainment, professional discretion could also apply (taking account of, for example, personal and social development). This would maximise the opportunity to use the teaching method which was most appropriate:, whole-class teaching because the whole class would be at approximately the same point; group learning because relevant resources could be concentrated where they were needed; group discussions etc because part-time staff could be concentrated in less formal afternoon sessions. The reorganisation of teaching sets should take place at least twice in the year, but could be more frequent.

Primary school timetable.

Any sensitive teacher will vouch that pupils are more receptive to formal learning in the morning than in the afternoon. Thus by keeping the more practical and experiential environmental studies to the afternoon, there would be maximum learning gain. If environmental studies were also in more age-based classes (or by physical maturity for PE) there would be a good opportunity for real group work with individuals sharing special expertise. Many pupils would be far more stimulated by the prospect of three different teachers in the course of the day. Teachers too would benefit from a break from the same few troublemakers day in and day out. There would be enhanced sense of purpose because the tripartite division of the curriculum gives a more focused approach to each discipline. By integrating expressive arts with their underlying discipline, pupils would be more likely to see the "subject(s)" as more attractive. The less academic but more expressive would have a better chance to excel in an important aspect of each area.

Adrian Grant is a former teacher of social subjects and computing

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