Big plans for a day of rest

4th June 2004 at 01:00
A project that offers web-based teaching resources is helping to Save our Sundays, writes Ruth Merttens

I was on a train, working. I was desperate to finish writing my weekly plans - surrounded by books, poems, bits of paper, frantically typing away on the laptop. I had a sense that my clutter was taking up most of the table, but also that the young woman opposite was trying to attract my attention. I kept my head down, but the silent pressure mounted. Finally, as we drew into Tiverton my fellow traveller rose to her feet, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, "I see you're a teacher and you're doing your planning."

The train jerked, and some of my papers slid off the table.

My companion continued: "I used to be like that - always frantic, behind on my planning, writing worksheets and all that. But there's this amazing website now - it's called Hamilton. You can download all your plans and it's free." She carefully wrote the address on the edge of my notepad as she moved along to get off the train "Try it," she said. "It will save hours."

The funny thing is, I am one of the two directors of the Hamilton projects.

I lead the small team which set up the website mentioned by my companion that day. Indeed, during the journey I had been writing the plans which this teacher might well have downloaded some time later. My colleagues back at the office fell about laughing when I told them what had happened.

But as I drove home from the station that day, I reflected that the Hamilton plans, stored on the site under the heading Save Our Sundays (SOS), were saving everyone's Sundays but mine.

Along with the project manager (also a primary teacher) and a small team, I help to produce a range of plans for creative English teaching which cover each half- term and all year groups.

So, is it worth it? The chair of the Hamilton Trust, Mike O'Regan, who has funded the project, says this planning is the most worthwhile project we have ever been involved in. Why? Because more than 65,000 teachers (about a third of primary teaching staff in England) are saving many hours by starting with these plans rather than a blank sheet of paper - but also because we have moved away from the objective-led planning which has killed creativity in the teaching of English.

The Hamilton plans return to the pre-prescription days. They go for inspirational books, for passion, for stimulating resources - yet they retain the range and rigour of the national literacy framework.

We know it works because teachers are coming back to us. We have had hundreds of enthusiastic emails, and positive comments from the Office for Standards in Education as inspectors have seen the plans in use around the country.

But the use of these plans raises some important questions. The most serious issue facing education is teacher retention. On average, a new entrant into primary teaching will remain in the job for just four years.

No country can sustain such wastage without serious consequences.

When I began teaching in my early 20s, I loved my job and I expected to work hard. But I did not expect to work weekends. Today, most newcomers to the primary phase spend between eight and 12 hours on planning alone over weekends.

Clearly, this process is short on enjoyment - and the SOS plans have helped with that, too. As a young teacher, I was constantly on the look-out for inspiration - for stimulating books, poems or posters that would enable my pupils and me to expand our literary horizons.

Of course, there was a downside. Pupils of 20 years ago can now justifiably complain that we did not teach them grammar, syntax and spelling. We were unsystematic, and not all teachers used a wide range of texts. The national literary strategy has successfully addressed these gaps. But presenting teachers - especially inexperienced ones - with more than 1,000 objectives, with no means of prioritising one over another, has led to death by worksheet. Teachers faced with 1,000 objectives will teach 1,000 objectives - they no longer teach English. The effects are devastating - not only in terms of a stalled initiative which has cost millions of pounds but in terms of teachers' job satisfaction.

And it need not be so. There are many advantages in having a framework for teaching English, and such a framework does not preclude creative teaching.

Teachers must start from their own passions and preferences.

They should be able to choose texts they love and draw on a wide variety of activities. But to do so will involve breaking through some of the insane restrictions applied in the past three years: "You can't mix text types"; "You can't teach poetry with fiction or with non-fiction."

But why not kick-start some work on "argument and persuasion" with Michael Rosen's bedtime poems or Anthony Browne's book on zoos?

On the SOS section of the website, I was determined to offer choice of texts, reduced planning time, creativity and rigour as well as exciting weekly plans and weekends without working. This project requires expensive technology, experienced, creative teachers and a team of editors, data-processors and checkers. It also takes the money put by one person into a small education charity and a huge commitment on the part of all those involved. Working in a team ensures that each plan is not dependent on one person's ideas. Every plan takes more than 20 hours to write, and no teacher could do it alone.

I always tell my students that if teachers don't like their plans, then their pupils probably won't either. Start with a plan that you really want to teach and the sky really is the limit. And chill out on Sundays.

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