Invention, not intervention

20th July 2012 at 01:00

Intervention for progress. That seems to be the buzz phrase for 2012. Let me explain what I mean.

My philosophy of primary education is a simple one. Young children have an innate enthusiasm for learning and a primary school needs to make the most of it. Those early years should be for introducing children to a range of exciting experiences. It is a time when a child can paint, craft, experiment, act, develop musical talents, write creatively, explore the wonders of maths, enjoy sport and games, garden, sew, read, build, compute and learn about the past and what might happen in the future.

Alongside that, a child should develop an engaging, unique personality and a sensitive and caring attitude towards others. We want children to develop a love of learning and an enthusiasm for acquiring new skills throughout their lives. After all, that is certainly what the best teachers do. Finally, we want children to be happy in school. We want them to wake up and say, "I can't wait to get to school today, because I need to finish making that rocketit's choir today."

Throughout my career, I kept to those ideals as a class teacher and then as a deputy head and a headteacher. When I first took up headship, my school was already using Fridays as a special occasion that embodied some of those ideals. The day was broken up into 45-minute sessions and a range of activities was offered to the children - things they wouldn't have been able to experience in a normal timetable. Each teacher offered something a little out of the ordinary.

To me, this seemed an excellent idea and I built on it. First, I involved the teaching assistants (who were delighted because their main role in those days was to mix paint and make tea), some parents, the school secretary and the premises officer. Then I contacted the local teacher training college and asked if it could give us 15 students on Friday afternoons. After a bit of haggling about dragging the students away from their Montessori lecturers, their tutors agreed, and we were soon able to offer an astonishing array of small group activities, from film-making to cake baking and harmonica playing.

Nowadays, primary schools usually have an abundance of adults working in them, in addition to the teaching staff. And the help that parents and teaching assistants can offer is readily appreciated. But sadly, in many primaries, the curriculum has narrowed and withered because governments have placed massive emphasis on basic skills in English and maths.

I would be the last to say that these skills are not important. They are, but not to the virtual exclusion of everything else. Too often, the richness that should define the primary curriculum has been cast aside in the desperate need to make every child reach a level 4.

And, of course, there are quite a few children who struggle to achieve that. The solution? All those parents, teaching assistants and willing volunteers who have so many creative and artistic talents are diverted into cramming with the ones who are in danger of not reaching a level 4 or moving up a couple of sub-levels. Whether or not they stay at that level is immaterial: at least the school will be safe when the inspectors arrive.

That is more than can be said for the children's missed opportunities.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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