Let the professionals get on with the job

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
The nation's most outstanding teachers are unanimous, says Jeremy Sutcliffe: primary staff need more space, more trust and less control freakery. Are you listening, Charles Clarke?

If we need legal advice, who do we go to? A solicitor. The same principle applies whenever we need sound advice - we ask a professional. What's so different about education? Why is it that, whenever politicians get into a panic about schools, professionals are the last people they turn to?

One aim of The TES's Target Creativity campaign is to convince politicians they cannot afford to ignore teachers' views, especially when they are at the top of their field.

With this objective, we turned to some of the primary world's most creative and successful teachers: dames and knights honoured for their achievements; heads praised for running high-performing and innovative schools; and award-winning teachers recognised as the best in their profession.

We asked what they thought about the current regime of testing, league tables and targets in primaries and about the balance between teaching the basics and other subjects. For good measure, we also asked the chief schools inspectors for England and Wales for their views.

Their verdicts are striking for their unanimity. It is time, say the professionals, to ease up on top-down targets and decision-making and give teachers the space and freedom they need to give children a rich and varied education.

* Dame Mavis Grant

Head of Canning Street primary school, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The first primary Dame and an adviser on the DfES citizenship committee I don't see any conflict between academic progress and creativity. I don't see them as "eitheror" approaches because they're part of the same process.

We have a very diverse pupil population with 24 different nationalities and significant numbers of refugee and asylum-seeker children. We use creative activities wherever possible, and the children respond by being far more interested, enthusiastic and motivated.

There is this perception that such activities are not allowed. I encountered this at schools when the literacy strategy came in. But there is nothing in there that says you can't continue to do these other, creative things.

There needs to be more dissemination of information to schools. There's been an enormous emphasis on driving up standards (and I hate that expression) and on incrementally raising targets. I do think that schools find that very, very difficult to deal with. It is a nonsense in some schools, particularly those schools like this, with a very high (50-per-cent a year) pupil turnover.

As a profession, teachers have to decide what they think is important and act accordingly. I get irritated because I think we are beginning to lose our professional voice. Schools have got to be a little bit more responsive.

* Vicky Reeves

TESPfizer regional science teacher of the year, Grafton infant school, Stoke-on-Trent

Even in our school it is very much down to literacy, numeracy and the targets. Literacy in particular is driving the curriculum. Other subjects are being squeezed out a bit.

At Year 2 the children shouldn't be worrying about whether they get a level 2a. I don't think that is particularly the case at our school, but teachers do teach to the tests, even in Year 2.

We have got our national tests coming up so we have been doing SATs practice. Our topic at the moment is "living things" so we should have been going out and planting bulbs or doing nature walks. But it is hard when you are thinking "we shouldn't be doing this because we need more practice".

The most vulnerable subjects are the arts really. But we are making an effort.

* Sue Riddle-Harte

Head of John Stainer community primary school in Lewisham, south-east London, recently praised by Ofsted as a fast-improving school after fighting its way out of special measures

The problem with having been in special measures is that the teachers start getting panicky. We have been out of special measures for just over a year now.

In Years 2 and 6 teachers really want to do literacy and numeracy, because they are aware that the kids aren't reading and writing adequately. There is a temptation to focus on that to the exclusion of everything else.

It is really sad, and it is what we all know is wrong as well. But you still want to do it because you feel awful for the kids if they can't get a level 4 - the magic cut-off point where you have won or failed. The reality, of course, is that getting a level 3 might be a fantastic achievement.

We do have a strong music curriculum. But it is one of the first things to go when the pressure is on. It isn't going to happen, not when that time could be spent on something that might help get a level 4. That's how bad it is.

The one thing keeping us on track with creativity at all is that we are involved in a mini-education action zone, set up to promote creative success through Excellence in Cities. For example, children are working with mosaic artists and we have professional musicians doing science and music projects.

The point is that children learn well through these. The action zone has kept us going creatively. I don't know otherwise if we would have been brave enough to get involved because of the situation we are in. I do believe art and creativity are the way forward. Schools need to believe not only in the arts, but in their ability to organise their own curriculum.

* Sara Brigg

Voted 2002 primary teacher of the year at the National Teaching Awards last summer, Castlefields infant school, Brighouse, West Yorkshire

I have lots of experience teaching very young children, three and four-year-olds. It is very important from an early stage to let them develop their imaginations. Unless children are given time to develop their playing, imaginatively, then it stops. The problem with the curriculum at the moment is the time constraints. Children are given an activity then have to move on to something else almost straight away. They need that time.

I think we also need to be more flexible in the way we are teaching literacy and numeracy. We have taken it really to the word. You can achieve all these learning objectives without having to do structured hour after structured hour.

It is trying to get the message across that teachers should get their creativity back. That message needs to be spoken loud and clear. We need to loosen the reins a bit to take things forward. It is too easy for teachers to think "it's all written down for me". I do worry about not giving children the time to develop their imaginations.

* Sir David Winkley

Formerly head of Grove school, in Handsworth, Birmingham, and author of Handsworth Revolution. Sir David is president of the National Primary Trust and founder of the National Primary Centre and Children's University

The Government thinks all is well. My view is that all is not well. I go into a lot of schools still and there is no doubt that there is a problem and that the arts are being squeezed out.

Right now I doubt you will find any school in the land doing much in the way of art and music for Year 11: what you are told to do is practise and practise the bloody tests. All they do for weeks on end is practise the SATs. We are talking about great chunks of the year being spent cramming for tests.

Teachers say to me they feel the curriculum is becoming simply dull, that literacy and numeracy have taken over and are driving the curriculum in a very destructive way, particularly for young children. Children are bored out of their minds. The curriculum doesn't have the range or balance that is appropriate.

What should be done about it? I have no doubt that the league tables are a fairly pernicious influence. We need a society where parents are able to say "What does my child need?", "What are my child's talents?" and give them a chance to find out.

* Jim Hudson, OBE

Headteacher, Two Mile Ash middle school in Milton Keynes, a high-performing school with beacon status, described as outstanding by Ofsted. Mr Hudson is also chair of the National School Centred Initial Teacher Training Scheme in Outstanding Primary Schools run with Nottingham University

Strategies like the literacy strategy are becoming damaging. You can't impose from the top. We're not servicing cars here - it is not a Rover plant. We're about teaching children and encouraging learning over time, about understanding where kids are and what their learning styles are.

Brave schools should say "I'll adapt the curriculum to meet those children's needs". That's our role. We should have moved on by now from a diet of nothing but strategies. In our school we have taken some risks, and the inspectors have said that's good.

There should definitely be different targets. We should judge schools in different ways. There should be targets about children's attitude to learning, for example, and for behaviour and involvement in extra-curricular activities. Or a school could set a target of getting parents more involved.

Let's judge schools differently. SATs results and league tables are an easy way to measure school progress but a bad one.

* David Bell

HM chief inspector of schools in England

In Ofsted we have highlighted the fact that we know there are schools that combine an appropriate focus on literacy and numeracy with a broad, balanced and rich curriculum.

Some people doubt if an emphasis on literacy and numeracy allows them to do other things. But the enjoyment of other subjects allows the children to build self-confidence and self-esteem. There is value in children being creative both in itself and because of these other benefits.

Some schools believe it is impossible to have both. We have tried to change that orthodoxy - to send a very clear signal about where we go next in terms of the primary curriculum. That said, we have to avoid going back to a woolly-minded, sloppy approach to learning creatively.

We recognise that there is not any one, Ofsted way of doing things. The purpose of inspection is to focus on outcomes. How they go about achieving their ends should be for schools to determine.

* Susan Lewis

HM chief inspector of education and training in Wales

The Cwricwlwm Cymreig (Welsh national curriculum) not only allows pupils to learn Welsh, but it also develops a wider understanding of the cultural, historical, linguistic and creative arts. Wales has also taken other measures, such as ending testing at key stage 1 from last summer.

My latest annual report says that primary schools are using time more creatively than before. Those that are doing well in the KS2 tests are also those that teach a broad and balanced curriculum. Pupils can get a well-rounded education, re-inforcing the learning they have gained from the core subjects in a wide range of contexts. KS2 tests are essential in bench marking what pupils can do at the end of their primary education.

In addition, the proposed Foundation Stage for three to seven-year-olds in Wales offers more opportunities for children to express themselves in a range of creative activities, including art, craft, music and dance.

* Sue Barratt

Head of Bournville junior school in Birmingham, recently named by Ofsted as an outstanding school, and a member of the UNESCO education committee. Bournville is a beacon school

If we did nothing but literacy and numeracy it would be a very boring place. We're all about developing the child.

At Bournville we do firmly believe in developing a broad and balanced curriculum. We do citizenship and thinking skills, and French in Years 5 and 6. We're planning to introduce it in Years 3 and 4. We do block (ie studying one subject for large blocks of time) subjects, too. Year 5, for example, has just had two days of design and technology. We also do residential visits. Our children have music lessons during the day, with the school paying half the cost of lessons in the violin, flute, keyboard and other things.

I ask the staff to look at their teaching and learning strategies. We try to take the pressure off the children - try to make it fun for them as well. We do all of the national curriculum, and some of the QCA optional tests. But I refuse to teach for the tests. The league tables are wrong. We set our own, individual targets within our school. If the Government wants schools to work together in a network, it's going to have to have a look at that.

* Richard Edwards

Headteacher of Nicholas Hawksmoor primary school in Towcester, Northamptonshire. The school has an ArtsMark Gold award from the Arts Council, is a beacon school and was praised as outstanding in its last inspection report. It also has some of the highest national test scores in the region

Sometimes you have to take risks. I feel it is important that we offer a broad curriculum for the children, because we are educating not just for the next stage of education but for life. We play such an important part in their early years and we want to set them in the right directions.

It does seem that the curriculum has become too narrow and that numeracy and literacy are now the be-all and end-all. Clearly they're very important, and they're what parents expect a school to get right.

But children have also got to develop as individuals, and as well-rounded individuals. We really do believe that. If we haven't got individuality and creativity we are going to have some very dull scientists and technology people in the future who haven't had the chance to sing, dance, perform or enjoy our culture and other cultures.

There is such an overlap between creativity and academic success. I feel that if children have gone from a lesson in dance or art or PE into a numeracy or literacy lesson, they have a far fuller involvement. They are actually learning.

* Rev Canon John Hall

General secretary of the Church of England's Board of Education, responsible for around one quarter of all the primary schools in England

Targets are important in themselves. I don't think there's any doubt about that. They have helped to raise the expectations of what students and teachers can achieve. Too many people had been failed by the system in terms of literacy and numeracy.

Nevertheless, a curriculum that is too narrow is to no one's benefit. While everyone needs to have basic skills, a person is failed by an education system that only teaches them to read, write and do numbers. They have to be able to recognise their own individual gifts and potential and begin to realise them. That is going to mean variety.

There is something fundamentally enriching about creativity, something which feeds into all other aspects of the curriculum and into the cultural richness of our own society. (Although) people shouldn't be subjected to pap. There is a time and a place for messages of various kinds and I do believe it is now time for the message to move on.

* Dame Sharon Hollows

Head of Plumcroft primary school in Greenwich, south-east London

YOU can get very respectable results by cramming children with information.

But to get really excellent results you also need to make sure that those children are creative and know how to be imaginative.

Yes, testing is important, but I'm also concerned to include children with special needs. Any school that achieves 100 per cent (in test results) should be questioned about how inclusive it really is.

The freedom is there. It is not that the Government says you can only do English, maths and science. But people feel that - because they are so pressured by tests. I have only just arrived at Plumcroft, but at my last school (Calverton primary in Newham, east London) we did loads of creative things with the children, with performances like Grease, Joseph and Oliver.

The Government is quite right to focus on improving standards. But ... we need to lose the obsession with hitting 100 per cent. You have to give children physical and creative activities too.

Interviews by Nicholas Pyke

* How can we foster creativity in primaries? Have your say at www.tes.co.uk or send an email to letters"tes.co.uk

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