Once the bane of the Seventies curriculum, themed topics are back in fashion. Hannah Frankel finds out how the trend inspires pupils and gives teachers new freedoms
Squeezing a dozen or so subjects into an already tight timetable can be difficult. So an increasing number of primary schools are coming up with a radical alternative: scrap individual subjects and replace them with term-long "themes" instead.
The trend has the backing of one of education's biggest names. Mick Waters, director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, believes theme-based work where national curriculum requirements are met through topics such as The Egyptians, as opposed to distinct subjects can inspire pupils, but only alongside exceptional teaching.
"Heads need to organise the school day into enticing learning experiences," he says. "Traditional subjects can be the vehicle for this, but there's a growing recognition that there are other ways that work."
Under Mick's supervision, a few secondary schools have been experimenting with replacing conventional subjects with cross-curricular themes over the past year. However, the approach is in its infancy in secondaries and is mostly limited to key stage 3. In the primary sector, it has already gone mainstream.
According to a TES email survey earlier this year, which involved 115 schools, about 11 per cent of primaries have used themed teaching for some time. A further 27 per cent have moved to a themed curriculum in the past three years.
The reason teachers and heads give is simple: it works. Wallands Community Primary School in Lewes, East Sussex, is in no doubt. It introduced theme based learning into Year 2 three years ago and has never looked back. Now the whole school has encompassed it. Brian Davies, headteacher, says: "It's been more motivating for pupils because they see the logic of developing themes over time, as opposed to hopping from one subject to the next every 40 minutes."
Sue Elliot, a teacher at Wallands, first came across topic work during her training in the early 1970s, before it was demonised by the "three wise men" Professor Robin Alexander, Chris Woodhead and Jim Rose in their 1991 report on primary education. She agrees that project work lacked rigour 30 years ago, but believes its newer manifestation inspires pupils to excel.
"The best results come from enthusiastic pupils, and this sort of learning makes them enthusiastic," she says. In Sue's Year 3 class, the first term is dedicated to the Victorians, which loosely covers history; the second term is storms and shipwrecks, which takes care of geography, while the third term follows an animal-focused Born Free theme, which looks at different aspects of science.
Sue adds: "Each topic has a focus but literacy is interwoven into everything." An hour of numeracy is done in addition.
In Kate Milner-Gulland's Year 6 class, the room is awash with colourful displays, maps, pictures of Bollywood actors and models inspired by the India topic the pupils have been working on for the past six weeks. "It's the biggest democracy in the world, you know," Katie Croydan, 11, announces as the pupils put the finishing touches on a giant Ganesh mask.
Most projects last a term, with some specifically designed to encompass Sats revision. Instead of traipsing through endless practice papers, 11-year-olds revise through the Titanic unit: designing leaflets, reading historical accounts and writing instructions. They take on a character at the beginning of term, and by the end they find out whether their character lives or dies.
Nicola Powell, a primary consultant in West Sussex, helps schools refine and develop their approach to the curriculum. She says so-called "learning journeys" are well-embedded in West Sussex, with all reporting big gains, particularly in writing. "This sort of learning taps into pupils' natural curiosity. You end up with resourceful, resilient and skilled pupils."
There are hurdles, however. According to 31 per cent of those polled in The TES survey, a themed curriculum is difficult and time consuming to plan, with a lack of resources cited as the main problem.