Curriculum overload

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Last term, 5-14 results showed a marked decline in performance as children move up through school. Raymond Ross asks primary headteachers around the country what is wrong with the curriculum and why they are having difficulties

Susan Gosling headteacher and all the staff Bankier Primary, Banknock, Falkirk

"The 5-14 curriculum should have been 5-16, taking account of all the time young people spend in mandatory education. There should have been greater attention on how it dovetails with Standard grades. Secondary colleagues have many focuses, with Standard grades and Highers, so the priority is not always 5-14.

"We have still not ironed out the perennial difficulties associated with transition to secondary and this remains the point at which the 5-14 programme is least successful.

"It was fainthearted to devise guidelines that at times issue woolly advice. There is insufficient detail - particularly important in the core subjects of maths and language - with the result that schools are all reinventing the wheel, devising their own detailed guidelines.

"There is also a problem with coherence in terms of skill levels. Our mapping programme highlights inconsistencies between guidelines. For example, measuring straight line distances on maps is level B in maths, but equates to level C in the old environmental studies programme. Use of the eight cardinal point compass rose was in the environmental studies document at level C but is level D in the maths document. There were similar inconsistencies for work on scale.

"When these documents are produced, the knock-on effect lasts for years and causes a huge workload for teachers, which is fine if the changes are consistently of high quality and based on sound educational principles. In science, this has not been the case. The original consultation document was radically altered because of inaccuracies and produced as part of the environmental studies document. This has had so many inconsistencies, it has been replaced by five new documents - all weighty tomes.

"The entire 5-14 programme was inadequately piloted. The curriculum is overloaded. There is a limit to how much teachers can fit into the curriculum and still provide high quality education. Also, early years teachers feel that we have become so prescriptive and over-burdened that we cannot find the time to focus on play.

"There are difficulties in the interpretation of the guidelines from authority to authority. Some authorities record on pupil reports the level attained while others record the level they are working within. This is confusing and misleading for parents moving between authorities.

"The 5-14 guidelines are a huge improvement on what we had before but are insufficiently detailed and too restricted in terms of age coverage to make the best prescriptive guideline."

Helen Ross headteacher Kelso Grammar, Borders

"Our attainment is now fairly consistent throughout school. Maintaining attainment further up the school is dependent on a core group of pupils achieving level A in P2. If this was not the case, there would be a tailing off in testing because of the time needed to work through the related programmes in maths, reading and writing at level B and above.

"Teachers find pupil testing useful as a benchmark in school and results are generally reassuring to them. Target setting and forecasting are useful, as is a comparison of results year on year. Comparative differences in attainment generally highlight differences in pupil groups, individual needs and abilities; for example, pupils who join the school from different settings and educational systems or those pupils with special needs.

"As to the tests themselves, teachers have welcomed the introduction of the mental section in maths, as it helps to give a more rounded assessment of a child's abilities in the subject.

"The written language of these tests, beyond level A, can be off-putting for some children. Teachers would prefer more freedom of choice for contexts in writing tests. They are in the best position to decide whether a context is motivating for children. This is probably more relevant in the upper school, as contexts become more complex. More up-to-date exemplification of marking writing tests would be useful.

"The system of 5-14 testing is now embedded as part of our assessment process. It is important that the tests, and how they are used in schools, are regularly monitored with the 5-14 programme. This is probably overdue."

Moira Leslie headteacher Raigmore Primary, Inverness Highland

"Although much can be said in favour of 5-14 national guidelines, they still leave a lot to be desired. They were hailed as the answer to the problems of transition between primary and secondary. Several years on we are still left with many of the same problems; the same lack of continuity and progression between P6 and S2.

"Teachers, especially at the upper primary stages, feel that the curriculum is far too crowded and the guidelines, instead of easing this, contribute to the overcrowding. While on the one hand they can be quite vague, leaving schools crying out for clear and manageable programmes of work, they do outline quite a substantial amount of work to be covered at each level, thus putting conscientious teachers under considerable pressure (particularly in modern languages and science).

"Local authorities and, in some cases, individual schools have been left to unpack the guidelines into a workable resource and although some attempts were made to tackle assessment, this area is still largely unaddressed.

"Much is discussed about flexibility in the curriculum, but the implementation of 5-14 has, in many cases, led to less flexibility and creativity and to a more slavish and, sometimes, frantic gallop through the curriculum.

"It could be argued that the implementation problems are those of poor management rather than poor guidelines, and that may be true in some cases. Guidelines, however, should not be open to such abuse as teaching to the test or being treated as lists of activities to be ploughed through.

"Teaching and learning in the 21st century should be taking a much more holistic approach to education. Hopefully schools will soon be judged on their success in dealing with issues such as the health of our youngsters and whether or not they are equipped with the skills to take their place in the workforce.

"The health and well-being of our youngsters should be at the heart of teaching and learning. The current 5-14 guidelines are ill-equipped to help schools address these issues and are, therefore, at risk of failing young people."

David McCone headteacher Willowbank Primary, Glasgow

"Glasgow City Council and the publishers Nelson Thornes have spent a lot of money and resources on developing a top-class comprehensive information and communications technology package which is based on the 5-14 guidelines. It can be accessed through the Glasgow Educational Network or be installed in stand-alone systems by inserting the appropriate disc.

"The staff are all agreed that this is an excellent resource and our school has the hardware to deliver it. The only problems are how and when.

"These are fundamental questions being asked regularly with regard to the 5-14 curriculum. If, like Glasgow, the council has provided professional back-up, the how question can be resolved. The hard question is when. The planning process is dominated by timetabling issues and confusion about which areas of the curriculum are optional or compulsory.

"The ICT programme is being welcomed with open arms and the timetabling issues will be resolved because ICT is a priority. However, there is disquiet about the breadth of the curriculum and lack of skills in specialist areas. The 5-14 curriculum is now so complex and comprehensive that it requires all authorities to offer quality provision for continuing professional development.

"Teachers are always striving to build up their skills and there will continue to be a variety of opportunities to do this. It would be helpful if the planning time due to be introduced under the post-McCrone agreement is used for forward planning and not to plan work for the person taking the class."

Brian Toner headteacher St John's Primary, Perth

"The 5-14 curriculum brought much needed improvements in the late 1980s but 15 years on we're still struggling to implement it fully.

"We underestimated the new thinking involved and found environmental studies, health education, ICT and personal and social development extending beyond previous expectations. Environmental studies mark two was better, but brought further reorganisation. Modern languages did not feature originally, but now occupy an hour a week at P6 and P7.

"Intentions are good but the curriculum is overloaded. Teachers cannot achieve all that is expected in a normal school week, especially if a class contains pupils at all levels from A to E. The core structure has become a straitjacket, preventing opportunities for interests not in the class plan.

"Some day the system has to tackle the question of extending the school day or reducing curriculum coverage. It also has to look at the substantial skills and knowledge required of teachers at P6 and P7 and seriously consider the development of teacher specialisms at this stage.

"Above all, 5-14 means paper. Hours of planning are required and the continuous assessment which any good teacher undertakes has to be recorded in meticulous detail. Then there are the acres of information required in pupils' annual reports, when most parents only want a straightforward statement of their child's progress and behaviour. Teachers resent the burden of much of the paperwork as a waste of time and effort."

Marlene Galashan headteacher Stenhouse Primary, Edinburgh

"The environmental studies guidelines have been with us since 1994. At that time the complexity of handling the new terminology and structure contained within the subject areas of science, social subjects (history and geography as we knew them were buried), technology, health education and ICT, as well as ensuring "coherence, continuity and progression" throughout, was a daunting task.

"However, most schools' staff, being for the most part obedient followers of the Scottish Education Department (or the Scottish Office Education Department or the Scottish Executive Education Department) fashion, set up the leaf of the kitchen table and proceeded with the time-consuming reconstruction of this curricular area.

"Imagine how the heart sank then when, in 2000, the production of a significantly revised document appeared on desks. Information technology was out; health education was out; these two areas were starring in documents in their own right; and the content of what remained was revamped.

"Where did that leave schools which had spent time organising for the presentation of environmental studies in an integrated, child-centred way? It left them a school programme which was out of date before the ink was dry.

"Yes, we know nothing should stand still but it does frequently feel like we're losing the race."

David Simpson headteacher Linlithgow Primary, West Lothian

"There are many challenges facing schools in the effective delivery of the 5-14 guidelines, not only to include the revised programmes for environmental studies, ICT, science and technology, but also to meet properly the criteria in all curriculum areas and maintain a reasonable balance.

"The guidelines should have given teachers the reassurance that they were conforming to a national agenda, that children throughout the country were being taught the same skills to the same standards. The difficulty has been identifying satisfactory means of assessment across all areas of our overloaded primary curriculum.

"The need to produce quantitative measures of pupils' achievements and the pressure on teachers to raise attainment levels in a few narrow fields of study, rather than realise potential in all areas of the curriculum, has also inhibited progress.

"Schools are certainly far better resourced, teachers better trained, programmes of study better planned and pupils' achievements in some areas better monitored and reported. Nevertheless, our concentration of effort on the delivery of national test results has meant less opportunity to develop the more creative, cultural, philosophical, social and spiritual elements of the curriculum."

Jean Todd headteacher Glencairn Primary, North Ayrshire

"While there is no doubt that the 5-14 guidelines are based on sound principles - breadth, balance, building on prior learning, structured programmes of study - we are still encountering difficulties.

"Newly-trained and relatively inexperienced staff try to follow them to the letter and this provides good guidance for planning and assessment, but the balance of time spent on each subject in the primary curriculum is difficult to manage.

"Parents have expectations that children will progress quickly through levels A-E, as they seem to represent a simple shorthand for what is really a very complex system.

"My personal concern is that we present a diluted version of too many subjects at the expense of solid, in-depth teaching of basic skills and knowledge, as we try to ensure we have completed a week's timetable.

"We must also be aware of the danger of stifling creativity in both staff and pupils. This might mean spending a little extra time on further exposition within one subject area, if necessary.

"Staff must feel confident that they are delivering quality teaching and learning experiences, with the children - rather than a series of documents - as the focus."

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