Bid a joyful farewell to death-by-extract

4th July 2003 at 01:00
I have inherited my parents' sardonic Yorkshire sense of humour. You might expect as much of someone born in a council house in Rotherham and christened Gervase. I had to smile last week when I read about the policy-maker at the Department for Education and Skills exhorting teachers to "reclaim creativity in the curriculum".

Evidently some schools have consigned poetry and art, music and drama as decorations in the margins of the more rigorous study of literacy and numeracy. This is not really a surprise given the obsession of this and previous governments with national tests and league tables, "levering up standards" and the constant diet of prescription.

I am delighted to hear, then, that the words "creativity" and "enjoyment" seem to be back on the agenda. In the past two weeks I have visited some remarkable primary schools. I was there to read poems and stories to the children, speak at the staff meetings and in the evening talk to the parents. Certainly these schools have not abandoned creativity.

At Coates Lane primary in Barnoldswick, Lancashire, it was the annual arts week. In a digital imaging workshop, children used computers to print T-shirts and took over the playground for a whole-school line-dancing event.

There were talent shows, musical performances, gymnastic displays, a drum-dance workshop, visiting artists, storytellers and poets and other activities.

The following Tuesday, at Hyrstmount junior school in Batley, Yorkshire, where 98 per cent of the children are British Asian, I opened the new school library - a bright, modern, cheerful area well-stocked with picture books and paperbacks.

The artwork the children had produced was stunning and their poetry quite amazing. They had just had a rap workshop with the African-Caribbean poet Donovan Christopher, and the puppeteers of Pandora's Daughter worked with them to design and make puppets and acted out Greek myths.

On the Wednesday, at Springfield primary in Stoke-on-Trent, the three and four-year-olds clustered around me in a most beautifully decorated hall "with eyes like chapel hat pegs" as we say in Yorkshire, fascinated by the puppets, stories and picture books. It was quite obvious from the questions they asked that these children have had a rich experience of story and poetry.

There is much to commend in the concept of a literacy hour if it is dedicated to exploring the richness of language, reading books, and bringing stories and poems to life by lifting them from the page in an exciting way.

Above all, it must be enjoyable. Sadly, in some schools it has become a death-by-extract experience, a teasing out of meanings in pleasure-destroying detail.

In one school I was inspecting some years ago, I asked a child what he was doing for the first period. He replied laconically: "Oh, we've got leprosy hour."

"You mean the literacy hour," I replied. "Aye, I know," he sighed, "but Miss calls it the leprosy hour 'cos she 'ates it."

In another school, a small child had painted a picture of a dragon peering out of a dark and dripping cave. It had a yellow slimy skin, red-rimmed eyes and breathed purple flames. When she saw it the teacher sighed, smiled and said: "Daniel dear, dragons are green."

They say that if you wait long enough in education it will turn full circle. I guess my former teacher, the wonderful, Mrs Smith, smiled sardonically as well when she heard that the DfES has produced a document (Excellence and Enjoyment: a Strategy for Primary Schools) which emphasises pleasure.

My love of books started with Mrs Smith in the infant classroom as I listened to her tell stories and perform poems. All those years ago she organised book weeks, visiting writers and trips to the library and theatre.

The last school I visited last week, St Anne's and St Joseph's RC primary in Accrington, has a long tradition of inviting poets, storytellers, authors and artists into school.

The mission of the head, Mark Dixon's, is to provide children with a first-hand experience of writers, artists and dancers which will be remembered long after "text-level work" and Sats scores have disappeared.

Professor Gervase Phinn was a local authority and Ofsted inspector and is now an author and broadcaster

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