Counting the hours;Numeracy: Subject of the week
Ask headteachers how the literacy strategy is going and most will probably tell you they are coping. But what will happen in September, when the Numeracy Strategy is added to the mix? All primary schools will have to teach a daily maths lesson of around 60 minutes to all pupils. It looks as if the diet for every morning is a thick government sandwich that leaves precious little time for the rest of the curriculum.
One group of teachers knows what this sandwich tastes like. The National Numeracy Project has been piloting the strategy in 13 local education authorities where some schools have had the experience of starting both strategies from scratch in the past nine months. What advice can they offer teachers who will be in the same boat come September?
The Numeracy Project - as opposed to the Numeracy Strategy - has been devolved to LEAs, and many classroom teachers would prefer not to comment publicly on how it has gone. Off the record, most admit that it has been a difficult time. Carol, an advisory teacher in a Midlands local authority, recognises that headteachers were simply "overwhelmed" at the extent of what was required of them last autumn. She says the schools that have coped are those that analysed their needs in advance and built the strategy requirements into their own development plans. Those that "dragged their feet" found the experience "difficult".
Schools had to prioritise, with headteachers taking a firm line on defining key issues. As one head points out, all the fine language of the framework was reduced to preparing a timetable that worked. Many teachers say they were worried about preparation and the recording of pupil progress. They believed the rest of the curriculum - and their best work - would be marginalised.
So, has it been as bad as anticipated? Leaving aside workload, some aspects have gone well. Discussions about curriculum time have helped focus lessons in other subject areas. So too has the experience of working with the outcomes-related pedagogy of the strategies. One non-specialist teacher says: "It makes you think in advance about what you are hoping to get out of the lesson rather than the content you want to explore in that time."
Many teachers seem to have been more at ease with the mathematics lesson than with the literacy hour. Advisers suggest many primary teachers already recognised they needed support in maths. Most teachers consider the strategy framework more "sensible" than the previous Numeracy Project versions, grouping topics to allow for depth, rather than surface learning. And most teachers like the way the lesson produces quick results and provides immediate positive feedback.
On the downside, time slots for other subjects have sometimes been too short for effective learning and schools have been forced to timetable in fortnightly - or even half-termly - blocks. Literacy hour sessions regularly overrun, which can be disruptive.
Monitoring is an area where the local authorities involved in the project have tried to develop training that shows headteachers how to help their staff improve. Heads and teachers say monitors seem to have most impact inside the classroom, relating the planning of a lesson to outcomes, talking to pupils and looking at their work so that discussion with the teacher is highly focused.
Linda Horsfield is head of Athelney School in Lewisham, south London. The school has been with the numeracy project since 1996 but added literacy last September. Time for planning and preparation is a big issue for her staff although she recognises that "it does get easier". A bigger worry has been the loss of time for other subjects in a school that values the arts. She also says the emphases on literacy and numeracy have "lost time for the children", with space for valuable informal contact lost in the rush to start the literacy lesson each morning. But Ms Horsfield says motivation and attitudes have improved, and expects the effects to feed though into performance.
The Athelney experience and that of other schools already working with literacy and numeracy shows that change is inevitable. Carol, in the Midlands, says planning for the introduction of a second strategy forces schools to "think the unthinkable". Efforts to make the timetable work have persuaded some schools to develop genuine cross-curricular links between subjects such as the humanities or design and technology and ICT. Others have moved assemblies, breaktimes and lunchtimes.
In two-form entry schools, the teachers of parallel groups have to work closely together, and the monitoring required has already overtaken many of the concerns about appraisal. And, finally, one teacher notes that a major benefit of the introduction of the numeracy strategy has been the end of hymn practice.
Jim Sweetman is the author of 'Curriculum Confidential, a guide to the national curriculum' (Courseware Publications)