Free the butterfly from the strait-jacket

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
This article will be in the nature of a shameless puff. But I make no apology. Local education authorities need to defy their stereotype and prove that they can enter the market-place and shout their own wares from time to time.

The cause of this shamelessness is a publication which has restored my (always rather shaky) faith in the possibilities of the national curriculum. And I write this in the hope that it will do the same for other sceptics.

It is called Art in the Primary School and it is co-written by practising class teachers in Tower Hamlets: 44 pages, lusciously laid out and illustrated, of policy and guidelines for the national curriculum.

Let me justify what may appear to be an abuse of a columnist's privilege by widening the context.

The strongest argument against the idea of a national curriculum has always been that it would inhibit teacher creativity. Many of us remember the best teachers of our own school days as those who defied current orthodoxy and created their own curriculum.

I remember, when I first started teaching, a brilliant older colleague who was also new to the traditional south London girls' grammar school where my career began. She who was so shocked by the limited cultural horizons of the Lower Sixth that she refused to embark on the A-level syllabus before she had spent a whole year on a critical awareness course of her own devising which involved none of the set books. (The pupils all went on to do very well.) Certainly some teachers have left teaching because of the original national curriculum, and all its attendant mind-numbing paperwork, and many more have stayed in the profession but rebelled against it, with wide public support. After all, why else was the teacher action against the SATs virtually the only industrial action in the past few years where the public sided with the unions?

But on the other side of the argument about the national curriculum were always those who talked about entitlement; who believed that unless there was statutory backing for a broad curriculum some children would always miss out because a lack of facilities or stereotyped expectations or the impact of subject shortages would continue to be used as excuses for cutting out whole areas of experience and culture.

It is this side which has in the end commanded the consensus. But we are all now waking up to the burden this is putting on the generalist primary teacher who, within the space of a very few years, has been expected to master the content and skills of the whole range of subjects.

And not only master them but be accountable for teaching them within what often looks like an intricately woven strait-jacket of attainment targets and "strands" and programmes of study. How can interest and inspiration survive?

Which brings me back to Art in the Primary School. Somehow or other it shows how the trick can be done. It starts from basics - philosophically and practically. What is the point of art? And what basic equipment do you need to get started? How do children learn and what sort of paint is the best value?

The book shows how to use Islamic calligraphy, Matisse drawings, African wire sculpture as a stimulus for understanding line; and basket work, Elizabeth Frink, Dutch still life paintings, Bill Brandt photographs for texture. And it tackles how to develop "shared looking" with children (did the artist paint this picture from observation, memory or imagination?) and use artistic experience to extend vocabulary (rhythmic, vertical, spiralling, monotone, symmetry, rotation, malleable, atmospheric).

And then this whole feast of possibilities is neatly arranged into one of those matrices of gobbledegook so beloved by my fellow columnist Ted Wragg (AT2; PoS, 5abc).

Yet somehow - to change the metaphor - the butterfly, though held still, is not pinned down. The miracle is it is still very much alive.

There is another point to be made about all of this. The editor of Art in the Primary School started the project as an adviser with the LEA.

Now, under the pressures of local management and the new inspection regime, he teaches in higher education. I can think of no more graphic illustration of the way in which priorities have changed. Curriculum development, as a function of LEA, is almost dead.

Almost. There is a degree of optimism in the word. I sense a wakening desire to revive it, a realisation that someone needs to get teachers together across schools, to give time to developing their best ideas, and rekindling their enthusiasm. At the end of the day it is not the policies or systems but the quality of teaching which counts.

Art in the Primary School. Edited by Steve Herne. Available from Learning by Design, Tower Hamlets Professional Development Centre, English St, London E3 4TA. Pounds 7.5O, plus 60p post and packing.

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