Paperwork by the ton in every classroom;Comment;Opinion

17th April 1998 at 01:00
The 5-14 curriculum guidelines introduced in 1991 were intended to require few resources because they were simply the exemplification of good practice. They were not supposed to be a national curriculum, but rather to assist schools in reviewing their own "policy documents, which will have been developed over a number of years".

In fact the "guidelines" have become the HMI benchmark. They now bear a striking resemblance to a national curriculum. So far they have required a great deal of work to implement. And the resources - equipment, curriculum materials, staffing and in-service - have not been adequate.

Many primary teachers are only now realising the full implications of 5-14 as schools move on from developing mathematics and English language to environmental studies and expressive arts.

The Scottish Office and HMI have now acknowledged there is a problem. Primary teachers will welcome Brian Wilson's recent announcement of a review of environmental studies. And the 5-14 Committee on Implementation - made up of HMI, advisers, directors of education, researchers, headteachers and teachers' representatives - has been reconstituted.

The committee must recognise the scale of the difficulties primary teachers face. The programme in its totality is completely impossible to achieve, not just in environmental studies but right across the curriculum. There is far too much content and the variety of expertise required is unrealistic.

In environmental studies primary teachers are expected to do practical work previously done in secondary schools. The same science lesson a specialist in a science lab once delivered to a class of 20, now must be delivered to 33 children by a primary teacher with no specialist expertise in an ordinary classroom with virtually no science equipment.

In expressive arts few primary teachers have the confidence or training for levels D and E in music. And then the curriculum is extended by extras such as modern languages, cycling proficiency, enterprise education, drugs awareness and so on. All very worthy, but something has to go.

Teachers are forced to cover topics superficially in a desperate attempt to fit it all in. This provides "evidence" of learning, while the skills we should really be building and developing in our pupils are neglected. "Evidence" may be no more than a series of worksheets, but it takes precedence over the learning process.

The guidelines have created an enormous amount of planning, record keeping and assessment, much of it irrelevant to learning. Teachers are losing self con-fidence because they find their priorities determined by conflicting external pressures, not their own professional judgment.

If schools are to be judged by numbers of children passing national tests, teachers will be forced to concentrate on training children to pass tests. And tests cover only language and maths.

HMI inspections, on the other hand, frequently say more time should be spent on environmental studies, religious education and so on. So schools produce timetables and paperwork to prove they are covering the curriculum demanded.

Thus the curriculum is likely to be both narrower, in the sense of concentrating on "basics", and shallower in the sense of identifying outcomes which can be measured, ticked and filed as evidence.

Teachers will welcome the view of several members of the committee that curriculum evaluation should be continuous and evolve in the light of experience. But the committee must reduce the content in 5-14 as a matter of urgency.

This should start with environmental studies, where a shift of emphasis from content to skills would be welcome. Materials designed to deliver the curriculum through topic work would also be useful. And the committee should also reject the kind of mechanistic planning and assessment techniques that the 5-14 guidelines have fostered in schools.

Examples of good practice in simple, brief and relevant record keeping could be collected and disseminated in order to reassure teachers that HMI will not require paperwork by the ton in every classroom.

Finally, at every stage the committee must consider the implications of its recommendations for real children and real teachers in real classrooms. This would concentrate attention on the practicalities of under-resourced and understaffed schools - not on sterile debates about basics and breadth in the curriculum.

Moira McCrossan is vice-president of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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