Let's make the very best of what we have

29th November 2002 at 00:00
I despair, Roddy Duncan. He is one of HM Inspectorate of Education's primary specialists and was featured on the front of TES Scotland (November 8) sharing "blame over 5-14 overload". Why do we shoot ourselves in the foot instead of congratulating ourselves on all of the achievements there have been with the 5-14 national guidelines?

Of course we should move on and look at what is working well and what should be changed. Dare I say self-evaluate? The First Minister, Jack McConnell, appealed for greater curriculum flexibility and a focus on a broad spread of talents in his first major education speech for a year and that will be welcomed as the next stage in teaching and learning developments.

TESS quoted geographers as calling the 5-14 programme an "unmitigated disaster". It will not surprise many that some secondary staff never did develop S1 and S2 courses with the 5-14 national guidelines in mind. But then S1 and S2 is still an area of difficulty, perhaps in those very schools. It is much easier to adopt the fresh start approach as pupils move from primary to secondary school, but at what cost to them?

Teachers who recall planning for primary classes before 1989 might remember topics which lasted for a term and the possibility of a class studying the Vikings at P3 and P6 with little thought of full coverage of appropriate studies. Words such as "balance" and "breadth" were not used.

Planning for "Pets" could be a spider-like diagram including as many curricular areas as could be crammed in and sometimes more English and art than anything else. Rarely was there a progression for listening and talking, yet children needed to develop those skills as well as learn to read and write.

I was teaching in the early 1970s when progression in mathematics was a series of home-made workcards. Mathematics 5-14 brought together best practice and best advice so that teachers did not all have to plan unaided.

But this is all about teachers. What about the pupils?

Children are much more likely to enjoy learning when the pace is brisk. To move through a well planned series of lessons must be much more fun than to plod through a topic for a whole term.

Nowadays, many schools put routines aside for a while to enjoy a multicultural or health education week. These concentrated studies can be supplemented with work throughout the session.

We have freedoms to work like this. The pupils can experience a wide variety of skills from many members of the local community.

Can we develop thinking skills? It is not at all a new idea. My school has been using Anne Kite's work book Guide to Better Thinking (NFER-Nelson) as a jumping off point to integrate thinking skills as an approach rather than as a separate entity. The Learning File by Matthew Boyle (Quality in Education Centre, University of Strathclyde) is also useful for this. We have used these texts with class groups, for after-school club work and recently as part of the Better Behaviour, Better Learning programme.

I cannot agree with David Cameron, the head of education in East Lothian, when he advocates scaling down planning. A well planned day is a joy for the teacher and children alike.

My staff have cut down the hours spent on planning by letting information technology help in the task. Good plans are stored on the computer in year group folders and are available to print out and amend.

Mr Cameron talks in TESS of cutting back on 5-14 assessment. Many schools have not yet assessed all areas of the curriculum; mine certainly never managed that. I would make a huge plea not to replace the current assessment with something even more difficult to implement.

Mr Duncan, please don't throw the baby out with the bath water. We have a described curriculum framework which is understood by everyone teaching. Support staff have developed materials which are shared across authorities. School staff have resourced programmes within the 5-14 guidelines. Writing is improving in many schools, partly because criteria for progression have been agreed and are understood.

Instead of off-loading the difficult parts of our studies and losing the richness of the curriculum, I am hoping Mr McConnell is poised to enrich schools by bringing in specialist teachers. That would reduce the burden of planning for primary teachers while keeping the interesting spread of subjects for children who thirst for knowledge.

Sheilah Jackson is headteacher of Queensferry Primary in EdinburghSend your views or comments to e-mail scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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