Freedom comes with a timely reminder
How should primary teachers plan the revised national curriculum so that the precious extra time, released in theory by the Dearing review, does not slip through their hands?
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority believes that teachers need an answer to this question and has therefore lifted its own rule not to inundate schools with paper. It has sent a new booklet, Planning the curriculum at key stages 1 and 2, to every primary school.
According to SCAA spokesperson Madalane Moore, there is a danger that without proper planning, the 20 per cent of the week - or "fifth day" - released by the curriculum revision will disappear. "If you simply do what you can and then see what's over, you'll find there's nothing left - you won't find there's any extra freedom."
Not that national curriculum planning is new. One much-used early approach was to choose half-termly or termly topics ("communication" was a popular one) and then draw a topic "web" indicating where various bits of the curriculum could be made to fit. Pat Weenen, head of Grange Farm primary in Coventry, used exactly this method.
"When the curriculum was coming on board with just maths, science and English, we operated a two-year rolling programme of topics with a science focus. But as the other subjects came on we found that it didn't hold up. We weren't managing the other subjects in a coherent way."
It was because Grange Farm staff expressed these doubts, through the Coventry LEA, that they became involved in helping SCAA produce the first key stage 2 planning document. This was published in May 1993 and offered another way forward, through staged planning tasks. The curriculum was addressed in terms of what had to be taught continuously and what could be divided into discrete blocks. (Thus in the latest advice on mathematics, competence in number is an example of continuing work "planned regularly and frequently every week". Exploring 3D shapes is suggested as a 12-hour block, studied once during the year.) When the Dearing curriculum was on its way, schools were asked to look again at planning and see how the advice booklet could be extended to cover key stage 1. Andrea Togher, head of Sacred Heart primary in Peterborough, was involved in this. "We were in effect asked to use the old booklet with a new booklet in mind."
For both schools, the task was, in the words of Pat Weenen, "to allocate finite, precious time in the curriculum," and the immediate effect was to make teachers question a lot of handed-down assumptions. Pat Weenen found that looking at time allocation "gives you a neutral starting point for re-examining the structure of the whole curriculum. It generates questions and challenges everything - methodology, ideology."
Thus, for example, teachers at Grange Farm decided that a session on spelling which previously took an hour could be done in half the time if the pupils were set into ability groups for spelling lessons. "The point is that we we took on board the idea of 'fitness for purpose' - looking at the whole range of teaching strategies and choosing what was most appropriate."
Similar conclusions, explains Andrea Togher, emerged at Sacred Heart. "All the time we questioned why are we teaching this? Does everything have to be taught in these groups?" One result was ability setting for maths and English.
Another early decision at Sacred Heart was to drop the daily half-hour story time. "We were spending 76 hours a year on it. Everybody realised how futile it was. We still read stories, of course, but they are selected and relate to the curriculum rather than just being pulled off the shelf."
Another far-reaching result of the curriculum re-think is seen in the school's approach to art. "We used to get lots of pictures on the wall, but we realised that we were not teaching children to draw and paint, which is what the national curriculum calls for."
As a result, art lessons, right from the start of key stage 1, consist of skills teaching - drawing, colour-mixing - and in most lessons children will not end up with a finished piece of work. Nevertheless the pupils put their vastly enhanced abilities to work in beautifully executed finished pieces towards the end of each half term.
In recent years, some primary schools have shown a willingness to make radical changes - to try ability setting; to drop the traditional story time; to seat children in rows - but planning documents from SCAA can only partly account for this. As Pat Weenen suggests: "It's not the be-all and end-all, it's part of a jigsaw."
One effect of the planning process in both schools was to move them away from a topic approach and towards subjects. Andrea Togher believes that "if the links are right, then you don't need topics". Challenging an orthodoxy to which she once subscribed, Pat Weenen says that topic work had been justified in the past because "it related bits of the curriculum together as a whole. But I'm not now convinced that the children ever really made those links. If you actually plan from a subject base it may prove that they can see the relationships better, although nobody's really sure about that yet."
At the same time, Pat Weenen knows schools that have taken the new planning process on board and have kept a topic-based curriculum. "One of the merits of the process is that it has the flexibility to meet the aspirations and needs of the individual schools."
Grange Farm teachers, of course, were working on timings with the pre-Dearing curriculum, and they quickly found that it was too tight. "It psyched people out of feeling that they could spend five minutes on defusing a child's argument, for example."
For this reason Pat Weenen is convinced that regardless of the new guidance from SCAA, schools would have had to revise their allocation of time "and build back in some of the things that are being squeezed out - records of achievement, behaviour management".
At Sacred Heart, faced with the task of finding the extra space promised by the new slimline curriculum, Andrea Togher decided to approach the task by first dealing with the non-national curriculum. "We asked ourselves what it was that made Sacred Heart tick." Much of the answer lay in the fact that it is a Catholic school. Time was needed to celebrate Mass and Christian festivals, plus preparation time for plays at Easter and Christmas. Eventually, the school was left with its own allocation of hours for the national curriculum.
At both Sacred Heart and Grange Farm, there is a strong feeling that planning along the lines of the SCAA booklet will help schools take full advantage of the forthcoming period of curriculum stability. Both heads believe that the process described in the booklet helps a school to fix the "top level" of planning - where each part of the curriculum comes in the year, how long it takes and to which groups it is taught - so that teachers are freed to look in detail at what happens in the classroom.
"If we can get in place exactly what comes in which term in each year or in each cycle," says Andrea Togher,"then the hard work will be done. It's a slog, but it's a bit like coming through a tunnel - the exciting bit then is to work out how you are going to do it. It releases you for that."
Additional copies of Planning the curriculum at key stages 1 and 2 are available from SCAA Publications, POBox 590, London SE5 7EF. Pounds 3 per copy (Pounds 1.50 for all state schools)