From dread to pursuing excitement

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Elaine Williams details how four schools are coping with the changes ushered in by the Dearing review.

The irreverent words of Spike Milligan were chalked on the blackboard for inspiration:

I must go down to the sea again To the lonely sea and the sky I left my shoes and socks there And I wonder if they're dry

It was skills afternoon at Harrow Gate Primary School in Stockton, Teesside, and the children were making shadow puppets. In the magical shadow theatre created by teacher Peter Lees, they were trying out their seascapes, complete with socks and shoes in hand.

Walk into almost any of the school's classrooms on a Friday afternoon and children will be locked into activity - fabric-printing; making jewellery; speaking French; investigating science; composing music, or exploring drama. One group, involved in expressive dancing, was using the national curriculum science theme of Structures and Forces.

In all of these lessons, children were required to listen, articulate their own ideas and interpret what teachers told them in a creative way. Friday afternoon skills classes at Harrow Gate involve mixed-age groups and are subject to children's choices, which change each half-term.

Sue Robinson, Harrow Gate's dynamic headteacher, introduced skills afternoon soon after taking up her headship. But last year, national curriculum pressures halted something she believes benefits the life of the school enormously. It is intended to give a lift to Fridays and to feed back into all areas of the curriculum. The Dearing revision has led to its reintroduction.

Sue Robinson said: "Instead of dreading Friday afternoon when everyone is tired and it's an uphill struggle trying to get children to do traditional work, everybody now looks forward to it. The teachers enjoy it because they have different children; the children love it because they mix with different children and because they like to have these skills."

Harrow Gate is situated in a bleak spot, on the edge of a large council estate which is home to all its pupils. In the five years she has managed the school, Sue Robinson has worked hard refurbishing the premises to create a "warm and friendly" environment which was praised by an Office for Standards in Education inspection team last year.

Harrow Gate accommodates 450 children and a nursery of 78, many from poor families, lacking in self-esteem and oral skills. Sue Robinson said: "Without self-esteem you don't perform well in any field. We give them as many opportunities to perform as possible. The revised curriculum helps us in this. Children who come here have been deprived of a lot of things and they have a right to do exciting things. This discretionary time is for the creative arts, we have made a conscious decision to do this."

To create greater flexibility within the curriculum, Sue Robinson has also dispensed with afternoon playtime, which she found disruptive to the flow of work.

John Kenwood, the headteacher of Bourne County Primary School in Eastbourne, decided some time ago to prioritise the performing arts. In an urban school of 490 pupils with class sizes of 35, John Kenwood felt that dance, drama, music, sport and PE were all essential to building up their confidence.

In effect, the school had defied curriculum requirements. He said: "We consciously did not follow the more elaborate curriculum Orders. What we took was the basic framework but we promoted performing arts. Our school is heavily over-subscribed. It seemed right to teach our children to be confident performers."

The school has held dance concerts and runs five recorder groups and several dance clubs. Sir Ron Dearing's revision of the curriculum helped to justify the path the school had been taking for some time. John Kenwood said: "What we are doing matches the remit of the national curriculum, more so than before. It's a looser framework to which our school can adapt."

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