Case study: Downton primary, Wiltshire

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Colleagues often ask how we give children at this rural primary school of just 230 pupils the opportunity to learn four foreign languages, to play more than a dozen musical instruments and to access a full sporting programme - all as part of a normal school day. At the heart of our teaching is a belief in "this is what works for us", and this ownership of the curriculum, alongside the freedom to decide how to teach, is at the core of the national primary strategy.

Modern foreign languages are introduced from Year 3, with children encountering a new language each year. We have recently added Italian and Spanish to French and German. Classes are halved so children can develop oral skills and learn about the culture of each country.

Teachers will, for example, talk about cities, geography and food. In Italian, the teacher has planned some work using opera as a way into music, while Spanish in Year 3 will include work on flamenco. Young children have an inherent love of languages and a fascination with other cultures. We want to encourage this.

Music in class has a huge emphasis on exploring sound and children are encouraged to share their music-making. From Year 2, they can have instrument lessons provided by the Wiltshire county music service (parents help with the cost) or by teachers within school. Individual and group lessons are held during the school day.

Providing these dynamic and exciting learning experiences can be demanding; Downton's teaching team acknowledged some years ago that we needed to change our organisation if we were to achieve our aims and stay sane. So we've become more flexible, with teachers delivering a smaller number of subjects. When we first explored the concept of specialist teaching (not specialist teachers), it was amazing to discover the breadth of talent and experience of our staff. It is this previously untapped resource that allows us to deliver such a wide curriculum.

Full-time teachers lead a single class, but move around teaching individual subjects across the year groups and key stages. We also employ some part-timers - allowing experienced staff with family commitments to stay in the profession. For example, staff can take their children to nursery or school and start work at 9.30am, finishing at lunchtime. Or a teacher approaching retirement may work four days a week, or a couple of afternoons. We can usually allow changes to hours and roles as we are working from a subject basis and not disrupting a specific class. This flexible approach also saves money, which we use to fund splitting classes and providing these extra subjects. Team spirit is vital, too. We recognise that, with such a large and changing staff, we need time to meet, talk, and offer mutual support. So we provide lunch, which all staff share.

Teaching groups are fluid and change according to the needs of the subject.

For example, all modern foreign languages, ICT and some music lessons are taught in half classes while sports and orchestras have much larger groups, perhaps with teachers team-teaching.

So what are the disadvantages? Organisation can be a nightmare with timetabling taking weeks. It's also a challenge to marry the preferences of individual staff for specific subjects and year groups alongside the requirement to provide a balanced curriculum. But the rewards are more than worth it. Teachers' workload is reduced, work-life balance is improved and Ofsted judged the quality of teaching and learning to be excellent in many areas. Children are also positive about their learning experiences and quickly become adept at dealing with a variety of adults leading several subjects in a range of settings. Parents too have been extremely supportive.

Our approach isn't perfect and we have much to learn. But the national strategy means that instead of swimming against the flow, we might now just be ahead of the game.

Gilly Harwood is head of Downton CE VA primary school, Salisbury, Wiltshire

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