Lament for a load of Pollocks

9th May 2003 at 01:00
In the second week of our campaign Huw Thomas argues that the curriculum can be rescued from dullness by remoulding the framework

How dull we are. Teachers boasting ever increasing science results lament that they don't teach the subject as enthusiastically as they used to, they just cram for tests. We attain in maths but struggle with investigations.

In a society with growing problems of childhood obesity there is great concern at the decline of games and PE lessons. I continually hear colleagues complain about curriculum constraints, not out of some hippy anarchism but out of a belief that, with a bit more creativity, they could do a better job.

In the middle of the dullness I've seen my alternative. The makings of a new primary curriculum are to be found in the foundation-stage early learning goals for three to five-year-olds. The crucial subjects of maths and literacy are there, although the latter has the healthier title of "communication, language and literacy", because the curriculum authors recognised that oracy is a vital building block. These are joined by "knowledge and understanding of the world", a wide umbrella incorporating science and humanities. There is "physical development", "creative development" and a strand that focuses on "personal, social and emotional development". It all looks like a solid primary curriculum, as opposed to the secondary-orientated, subject-led national curriculum we currently "deliver".

Our national curriculum was first introduced in the days when eight-year-olds could spend a morning doing phonics or playing among the Lego pieces, depending on the school. There was no agreed structure for teaching. Prime minister Margaret Thatcher wanted a core curriculum of English, maths and science. Her education secretary, Kenneth Baker, favoured a broader offering. As a historian, with a genuine passion for his subject, he felt all children should learn about Agincourt and advocated a simple humanities curriculum:

"Geography is about maps And history is about chaps".

The national curriculum was devised by experts such as Sir Leslie Fielding, vice-chancellor of Sussex University, who was given charge of the geography working party. Unlike the practitioners who wrote the foundation stage guidelines, these experts, distanced from classrooms, drew up shopping lists of facts. The only revisions have been moderate slimmings-down of the content within these subjects. No revision has ever questioned the framework itself.

And so primary geography is bogged down in secondary school details. What 11-year-old really needs to know about "the physical features of rivers (for example, flood plain) or coasts (for example, beach), and the processes of erosion and deposition that affect them"? Art lacks the enthusiasm of artists. Is the priority for a child to paint like Mondrian or paint like a child? I can't remember the last time we spatter painted because the results are exciting - these days teachers only do it to ape a pile of Pollocks.

The national curriculum was a blunt tool moulding a commonality of learning across schools. It is no longer the best tool for the fine tuning of learning.

The early-learning goals provide a good structure upon which to reconstruct the primary curriculum. We could experiment in this way at key stage 1 for two years, then move on to key stage 2.

We would be able to take literacy results further by complementing the National Literacy Strategy with creative projects engendering real writing, such as the production of newspapers, and projects that promote a love of literature.

Science could be saved from reduction to the ability to remember facts, label diagrams and interpret tables. If we recover its investigative fun, we will improve children's ability to solve problems - much more important than Pavlovian training for tests.

As we did this we would take with us the sparkiest stuff of our sojourn in the national curriculum. A talented colleague of mine would still do his Anglo Saxon day when he cooks broth and the class behaves like savages. I would still walk children from the source of the River Porter into the city of Sheffield. We would cherish these learning experiences, not labour the facts.

We would take the literacy and numeracy strategies with us to safeguard the breadth and content of the most important subjects.

We would take with us the resources that have been developed. One result of curriculum change has been the focused production of good resourcing for subjects such as science. We'll take the good stuff.

We would use some of the space for new learning, such as the growing areas of experience to be explored in technology. We would also expand subjects.

To take one example, couldn't some of us do with having at least one unit of history that majored on the contribution of an Islamic civilisation to our world?

And we would make room for imagination, which, in the words of Pascal, "decides everything. It relates beauty, justice and happiness, which is the world's supreme good". How's that for a primary curriculum? Should we consult the vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex? Not this time.

Huw Thomas is head of Springfield school, Sheffield



* Be bolshie: bin the targets and set your own

* Be confident: bring back creativity and breadth

* Be free: resist pressure to teach to the tests


* Stop the pressure to meet narrow targets

* Develop realistic targets from the bottom up

* Stop telling teachers how to teach

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today