New day for a new primary school

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
At the next school disco join in and sing along to a chorus of 'I'm ready for change', says Ellen Smith

came away from the school disco with the strains of "Are you ready for luv?" drumming in my ears and two unconnected thoughts in my head. How children can withstand such high-decibel music with fit-inducing strobing lights, and just how inadequate the bleak assembly hall is to hold such an event.

Schools are being asked to provide so much more now: not just in terms of accommodation but also in terms of an ever-expanding curriculum. This month I have been invited to bid for three separate pots of money: one for enterprise, one for "wardetectives" to promote intergenerational learning about the Second World War and one for science. I have been offered football, rugby, badminton coaching, sportshall athletics, a science club and swimming lessons for P4 and P7 pupils.

We want it all. But the pressure on the curriculum and the stress on teaching staff is in overload. Children are being hustled through these "extras" without the time to enjoy them. Staff have been heard to mutter:

"When do I get time to do some real teaching?"

They mean, of course, language, maths, science, RME, environmental studies, as well as citizenship and enterprise, instead of accompanying children to football skills training, or badminton coaching, or to see a visiting drama production where they watch other professionals work while they "babysit".

However enjoyable, this is not a good use of teacher time.

In schools today we are expected to manage an overcrowded curriculum as well as deliver improved academic standards. We are expected to embrace every new government initiative. Schools are being asked to take over parents' role in teaching about social skills, drugs and sex education, citizenship, healthy eating and more. This is asking too much and something has got to give.

So, are we ready for change? I think we are. The nature of teaching has changed from one teacher, one class all day, to various teachers, various small groups, all needing quiet teaching space as well as their own class area. Today's schools, however bright and welcoming, are no longer fit for this purpose. We need to redesign our schools as community buildings.

The configuration of the school day also needs to change to suit the needs of pupils and parents and to help fulfil the expectations of educators in the 21st century. So here is my suggested makeover for a primary school of our time:

* 7am-8am: breakfast club.

* 8am-1pm: core curriculum time, delivered by teachers. With two 15-minute breaks, this would engage teachers for 22.5 hours of class contact time.

Fewer teachers would be required. The rest of their 35-hour week would be negotiated as normal to cover planning, preparation and development work.

* 1pm-2pm: lunchtime, provided, administered and supervised by a private partner.

* 2pm-3pm: extended curriculum, half an hour of which is compulsory, to fulfil the 25-hour educational entitlement for children. This would be delivered by tutors, specialists, coaches, and funded partially by education authorities and partially from co-ordinated monies from lottery funding, government initiatives, sports funds and so on. Teaching staff could undertake extra duties here to supplement their salaries.

* 3pm-4pm: optional extra-curricular activities for those pupils and parents who wish it. These could be run as part of the community education plan and co-ordinated by community staff.

* 4pm-6pm (or later): after-school care.

The advantages of this new configuration would be:

* An extended schoolingday-care package to suit working parents

* Teachers would get to focus on what they do best - teach. The core subjects would be given quality time with proper formative assessment and feedback to pupils.

* Greater emphasis on core subjects, increasing attainment. Pupils would benefit from core subjects being taught in the morning when they are at their brightest and best. In the afternoons they would have a greater choice of extended curricular subjects.

* Less stress on teachers leading to less staff illness and fewer supply staff problems.

* Easier recruitment of teachers through more attractive conditions of service Money presently given for various short-term initiatives would be consolidated and properly allocated in a sustainable way, instead of each school having to bid independently for funding.

The climate is right to change. PPP, the public private partnership programme, is poised to deliver new schools. Let us be radical in our design, be imaginative in our use of space and make them fit to deliver education in schools for the 21st century.

To change the configuration of the school day would need a seismic change on a national level. Why not now? I want to go to the next school disco roaring with the rest: "Yes, I'm ready for change."

Ellen Smith is head of Tullos primary school in Aberdeen.

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