Pity the poor teachers

21st March 2008 at 00:00

A NATIONAL CURRICULUM FOR THE EARLY YEARS Edited by Angela Anning Open University Press Pounds 9.99

Infant teachers suffered particular stress when the national curriculum was introduced. Not not only did they have to cope with all the changes and demands, but they had to wrestle with a subject framework poorly matched to their practice. It was not that infant teachers had never heard of subjects (most had a degree in one) but that they generally thought of their teaching less in terms of subjects and more in terms of experiences to be planned and skills to be taught. By comparison with colleagues in primary and secondary, their days were much more likely to be child- rather than subject-driven; hence the conflict and stress.

It has been remarkably quiet on the national curriculum front for some time and the Wars of the Ringbinders seem now to have ended (I sit with fingers crossed, touching wood). In this period of calm, some may wish to reflect on those frenetic days to see what lessons are to be learned or to satisfy a nostalgic longing for the days when the curriculum held centre stage. Angela Anning's book is an ideal place for them to begin.

The contributors, who include Patrick Wiegand (geography) and Roger Beard (English), offer short essays on each national curriculum subject with the exception of information technology, which is dealt with by Helen Constable as a coda to design and technology.

These are not practical essays on how to deliver the subject, nor are they dispassionately analytical academic papers, rather they are journalistic pieces which concentrate on describing what happened from a particular perspective.

Anning's sympathies lie with the teachers, whom she sees as struggling against the odds to deliver the undeliverable. She believes that teacher consultations over the introduction of the curriculum were "derisory" and takes side-swipes at the "men in grey suits" blamed for devising it and at Margaret Thatcher, described as an "honorary male".

The national curriculum certainly posed enormous problems to infant teachers and the writers point to a lack of critical analysis and trialling of material. As it was, the curriculum was introduced without the radical ideas on which it was based really being subject to sufficient scrutiny. Beard suggests that, in English, it was the attempt to accommodate different ideologies that was the root cause of problems, although this judgment could easily be applied to some other subjects as well. In some areas - information technology is the prime example - chronic under-resourcing is indicated.

Looking to the future, many of the contributors are optimistic about the gains to be made from the reduced prescription at key stage one coupled with the period of much needed curriculum stability. But in some subjects, history and science for example, it seems that there may still be fundamental questions to be asked. What sort of subjects are they at key stage 1 and what are our aims and purposes in teaching them?

Although I identify strongly with the perspective of the contributors - the dedication talks about "managing the unmanageable" which just about sums it up - I look forward to the time when more detached analyses of this period of change begin to emerge. Perhaps we simply need the distance that time gives before this can start to happen.

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