Creativity loses again

30th January 2004 at 00:00
The arts are being sidelined in the new framework for inspections, argues Bill Laar

The education establishment has looked benignly on primary schools of late.

They have been praised for the quality of their leadership and the effectiveness of their teaching, for gains in literacy, for lavish provision in information and communications technology and for pupils' progress in scientific understanding, reflected in Sats.

But the approval has been tempered by reservation. The Government suspected that success in core subjects was being achieved in the context of a diminished curriculum and restricted educational opportunities for children.

So primary schools were urged to provide the richest and most extensive curriculum possible. Inspirational examples of good practice and organisation were provided by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Office for Standards in Education, followed by the Government's Excellence and enjoyment - a strategy for primary schools.

This came with an unequivocal message: "Literacy and numeracy remain vital, but we want all schools to offer pupils a rich and exciting curriculum in which all subjects are taught well."

This was backed by a promise of significant financial and practical support. Pessimistic or timorous professionals were assured that Ofsted would be part of the grand design, focusing on the extent to which schools provided a broad range of worthwhile curricular opportunities.

The primary strategy offered a sense of release for primary schools, many of whom were genuinely oppressed by what they felt was relentless pressure to achieve unrealistic targets and the fear that Ofsted judgments were largely determined by Sats outcomes.

Now, they felt freed to renew the provision of creative arts, high-quality PE and access to the humanities as the surest means to enrich pupils' experience. They felt there was hope that the retention of core subject targets would not impair the strategy's aims.

However, the way in which the new Ofsted framework is being implemented represents a more serious threat to the strategy. My opinion is based on a modest sampling of 15 new inspection reports, but the schools involved are representative of the whole sector.

It is clear from every report that core subjects have been rigorously inspected. In marked contrast, many of the foundation subjects receive little more than cursory attention. Many subjects are grouped to form blocks - creative, aesthetic, practical or physical subjects - and are "sampled", with inspectors basing their judgments on evidence, often necessarily scanty, gleaned from pupils' work, displays and other representation made by the school.

The framework does encourage the reporting of outstanding practice in any subject, and schools are able, through self-evaluation, to bias the process towards the foundation subjects. But it seems unlikely that this is happening. Inspection of English, maths, ICT and science continues to dominate the process at the expense of history, music and PE. The following summary is typical:

"Only two lessons were seen in music, one in PE one in design and technology and none in art. It is therefore not possible to make a firm judgment about provision."

Why is there so radical a departure from the process applied to the core subjects? The main causes may be these:

* the significantly reduced allocation of inspection days;

* some subjects cannot be timetabled during the inspection;

* inspectors may be hesitant to sample subjects as important and complex as English and ICT, even where the pre-inspection data suggests a major focus could be on foundation subjects.

The changes are likely to affect schools in various ways. They will receive a message that is diametrically opposed to the vision of the primary strategy.

The likelihood of children experiencing a rich and transforming curriculum will be diminished. A reduction in access to the arts will limit influence on their spiritual and cultural development.

Meanwhile, the status of PE may be undermined at a time of concern about children's fitness.

Finally, there is a serious danger that a reduction in subjects and experiences that enrich and extend all learners will affect most adversely children from socially disadvantaged circumstances.

Leadership 27 Bill Laar is a former chief inspector in Westminster

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