Haven't I heard this strategy somewhere before?

23rd July 2004 at 01:00
Helen Wainwright uncovers a plot to keep Whitehall mandarins in work

It's a good six months since I was moved to submit an offering from my "Rant and Froth" file (see Primary Forum, November 21). A recent issue of Teachers magazine from the Department for Education and Skills set me off again.

Seldom has such a slim publication led to such an excess of ranting and frothing. Call me overly dramatic, but I may have uncovered a plot to keep Whitehall mandarins in jobs for life.

The magazine celebrates the first anniversary of Excellence and enjoyment: a strategy for primary schools. The strategy's stated goal of combining excellence and enjoyment left me open-mouthed the first time I read it. One year down the road I still marvel that someone in the bowels of Whitehall was probably paid very good money to come up with this little gem. Correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't excellence in teaching and enjoyment in learning been the goal of every teacher in every school since Moses was a lad?

The article highlights Schools in Focus - those selected by the DfES and featured on the TeacherNet website because they embody the essence of the strategy. Don't get me wrong. I am highly delighted that these schools are being recognised and celebrated, and it certainly sounds as though they're doing a great job. But as I read on, many of the features of these focus schools seemed uncannily familiar - quality artwork displays, cheerful staffroom, school-centred teacher training, sharing practice, learning based around children's ideas and experiences and - wait for it - "an enriched curriculum taught through topics in which foundation subjects can be incorporated". Now, where have I heard this before?

Hang on a minute - isn't this how most of us were teaching 10 years ago, before the Invasion of the Initiatives? We taught through topics and projects; we let themes develop because the children were engrossed. We taught history through art, design and technology through geography, writing and numbers through it all. That old favourite "The Romans" led us to design theatre masks and build wobbly aqueducts, to imagine ourselves on the midnight watch in some lonely military outpost. If something took longer than its allocated timetable slot, we let it. If we ended up going off at a tangent, investigating the unexpected, we did it. We just made sure it all "balanced out" later on in the term. It was called professional judgment.

I'm thrilled that it's making a comeback. I just can't help thinking about the intervening years when inspirational teachers felt they had to change their ways; all those children whose learning experiences became disjointed; all those local education authority subject advisers whose posts seemed to wither away when the spotlight was on literacy and numeracy. Now the primary strategy promises us consultants who will offer support across the foundation subjects. What a pity we didn't hang on to the people who were already doing the job. And what about all that money spent on writing documents, producing guidelines and delivering training - not to mention the salaries of all the people who devote their energies to thinking up strategies in the first place.

Which brings me back to my plot theory. Whitehall is re-cycling and re-labelling teaching and learning, giving it a snappy new logo and selling it back to us. Isn't it time we told the DfES we're on to them?

Helen Wainwright is a freelance education consultant and former key stage 1 co-ordinator

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