"If it's Friday morning, it must be history" - but why? Ted Wragg argues schools must cast off the shackles of conventional schedules to meet the demands of a modern curriculum
GOOD IDEAS in education often struggle to find a foothold. They founder not on the lack of teachers or resources, but on the school timetable, the very instrument that should facilitate them. In recent years the timetable has increasingly become a tyrant.
There is no lack of suggestions for new subjects and activities. It is solutions that are in short supply. Citizenship anyone? How can it be fitted into an already overcrowded timetable? Economics? A second foreign language? Handling your money? Gardening? Photography? Latin even? Alas, no room at the inn.
Different schools have fashioned plenty of working ideas, like the six or 10-day timetable, breaking the usual weekly approach to accommodate more. There is the extended school day; the use of clubs, activities and study sessions; and thematic days, which allow whole days to be spent on an activity.
Roland Meighan, the home education campaigner, argues that the curriculum should be seen as a shopping catalogue. Children can learn in school, in clubs, at home, or through exciting interactive technology, including the Internet.
Other attempted solutions include the creation of a small 15 or 20-minute module as a building block. I went to a 7,000-pupil school in New York in the 1970s, when "modular scheduling" first began. Teachers could request a multiple of the basic 20-minute module for different activities: 20 minutes for class business, 40 minutes for Spanish, 80 minutes for sports.
Unusually for that time they used a temperamental computer, a primitive IBM, which they said stood for "It's Better Manually". Nonetheless, it made the unwieldy manageable and laid the foundations for more sophisticated computing in later years.
But computers do not by themselves solve timetabling problems, for they are programmed to deliver what their begetters think people need. Solutions will only come about if we have a flexible mind-set, taking into account how children learn.
The major tyranny to bury is the belief that every subject and activity must occur every week. This is based partly on the need to accommodate school inspections: any week must also be a "typical" week. Yet inspection only occurs every few years, so it should not dominate the intervening periods.
Consider the problem of introducing citizenship into the national curriculum from 2002 onwards. One element of citizenship is "volunteering", doing something for fellow citizens. It would not make sense to "volunteer" for half an hour a week. Helping one's fellows requires a more intensive approach.
If primary children in Year 5 and secondary pupils in Year 8 spent, say, a week in July doing a significant piece of voluntary work, this would be both useful to society and memorable for the children. Nor would it have to be the sole form of volunteering, The school could still perform its concert, play in the local retirement home and do whatever else it judged fit.
Some activities do traditionally qualify for a whole week, like a geography field trip, but others struggle to win sustained time. As a former languages teacher I always found that saturation at key points was a useful addendum to the daily drip-feed. It often took the form of the odd weekend residential, during which everything was in French or German.
Yet business people interested in trading with the Middle East do not send their employees on a five-year Arabic course for half an hour a week. They give them a highly intensive immersion course. In school we quote the timetable yet again as the obstacle to such possibilities.
There is an inescapable tension between flexibility and the need for stability. Neither pupils nor teachers want a different timetable every week: that would be a nightmare. It is handy to know that, on a regular and predictable basis, history is on Tuesday mornings and games are on Thursday afternoons. Stability and flexibility can co-exist, however.
Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, has proposed one version of flexibility, whereby perhaps 30 or 32 weeks a year are given over to the usual weekly timetable. The remaining weeks can then be used imaginatively for subjects and activities that need flexibility: visits, science and technology projects, the performing arts, whatever benefits from not being interrupted every few minutes.
A primary head said to me recently: "Wouldn't it be marvellous if we could do the daily literacy and numeracy hours Monday to Thursday, and then have Fridays free for more flexible approaches?" One of the best literacy activities I do involves children acting as radio journalists and compiling a radio news bulletin. It needs a whole day, however, if a visit to the local radio station is to be included.
A newly-appointed geography teacher in a very academic grammar once persuaded his head to suspend the timetable for two days so the whole school could do Project Africa. It was a knockout, and he went on to be one of the best heads of his generation.
So it is time for all schools to resist the tyranny of the timetable. Heads and teachers of the world unite. Share with others any good ideas for providing flexibility. Be a bendy toy, not a poker. Cast off the shackles now.