Detox those jaded pupils

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Give your class a break from those energy-sapping English and maths routines and put fizz back on the menu, says Diane Hofkins

Teachers! Heads! It is a new year and time for a detox. Cleanse yourself of those outdated, artery-clogging beliefs. Feeding your pupils an unbalanced diet of English and maths practice won't bring the results you want. They need a varied and exciting diet, rich with colour and exotic flavours.

Trust your own instincts. Spread your wings, and help the children to do the same. And you do have permission from the nation's top gurus.

The most worrying comment in the chief inspector of schools' annual report on the national literacy and numeracy strategies was this: "Too many schools are not convinced that more creative work will really make a difference to standards and may be unwilling to take a risk."

This concern is not unconnected with worries about uninspired ("satisfactory") teaching (see below). Some schools are taking on board the message coming from such official places as the Office for Standards in Education and the Primary National Strategy that creativity works, that it is OK to break free of prescription. It is time to believe again in the power of thoughtful, imaginative teachers to make a difference. Mr Bell says: "Many schools try to raise standards in English and mathematics by focusing too much on these subjects in isolation. This is detrimental to the subjects themselves, the secure development of sustainable skills and to the curriculum more generally."

Schools are now expected to make their own judgments about how much depth and breadth to give to each element of the national curriculum, and about how these elements fit together. This should be based on their own philosophies, the needs of their pupils and the particular skills and interests of the teachers. Ofsted's report, The curriculum in successful primary schools, published in autumn 2002, showed how different types of schools achieved this. A clear focus, a picture of what you want to achieve, are essential, but this does not seem to have been universally understood. Ofsted feels the need to inform schools that to implement the Primary National Strategy successfully they should "ensure that they have a clear rationale for the decisions they make about the primary curriculum, the amount of time allocated to subjects and the different aspects within them".

Also threatening the effectiveness of the new Primary Strategy, now entering its second term, is the insufficient development of links between successful literacy and numeracy work and other curriculum areas, according to Ofsted. Among the strategy's ambitious aims is to bring about a more integrated curriculum without diluting standards in the basics, or children's learning in other subjects. In fact, both should be enhanced by rigorous but creative teaching. However, there is quite a lot of catching up to do in subjects such as art, history and PE because of the neglect since mid-1990s. "The extent of recent training or professional development, beyond that for English, mathematics and information communications technology, is too variable across schools and subjects", says Ofsted. "Only about a quarter of schools have held significant training in other subjects recently. This has implications for the successful development of the Primary National Strategy."

Standards bearers have worried that encouraging schools to develop a more integrated curriculum will lead again to the type of wishy-washy catch-all projects we had in the 1980s, which were condemned by inspectors and researchers for lack of focus or depth. Literacy expert Sue Palmer now urges teachers to "get out of the straitjacket but not back into the woolly pully".

Others felt that we had come too far since 1990 for that sort of reversion.

Today's projects would be sharp and rigorous. So it was alarming to read one of the examples of unsatisfactory teaching cited in the Ofsted report.

"In a Year 6 geography lesson on the rain forest pupils tasted foods, used a computer program, painted their faces and engaged in drumming - all of which interested them - but their progress in knowledge, skills and understanding of geography was minimal". Apart from the ICT element, this is very like the sort of rainforest projects seen in the late 1980s.

Fortunately, other lessons had found good recipes for integrated teaching: "Key stage 1 pupils studying food for science began the session with a story of The Magic Cooking Pot to engage their interest, before examining a basket of fruit and vegetables. They began by estimating the number of items of fruit in the basket, explaining their thinking, before moving on to discuss the characteristics of the fruits and vegetables."

Bon appetit!

Head's training diary 29 The Write Start, Teacher 12

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