Primaries still have too much to cover

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
With the election over, The TESScotland talks to teachers and heads in the front line and to education leaders, who all have some forthright messages for the new Scottish Executive

OVERCROWDED, overcrowded, overcrowded. Primary teachers chorus the same complaint across the country. Someone has to do something about the curriculum and fast - but with the consent of the profession.

A respected west of Scotland head, who did not want to be named, said a curriculum review was essential and the 5-14 programme was "on its knees".

"We need to review the curriculum but by general practitioners and not by zealots and it has to be done as a whole," he said.

At the same time national testing is "still skewing things", teachers are "drowning in paperwork which is not a lot of benefit" and someone had to decide finally whether teachers in upper primary are subject specialists or generalists, he said. There had to be a better balance between planning, paperwork and reporting for the good of children.

Hazel Gilfillan, a P4 teacher at Kings Meadow primary in Haddington, East Lothian, finds it almost impossible to deliver the 5-14 curriculum. "We are trying to achieve curriculum balance but it is very difficult because of the number of subjects you have to teach," Mrs Gilfillan said.

Illustrating the pressures of overcrowding, she says: "You have to be able to teach a high level of ICT as well as teach the basics, focus on science and give pupils a taste of their own Scottish history."

Her "biggest bugbear" are the writing tests which prove difficult to correct and are open to many interpretations. "The reading and maths tests are much better but in writing the children never perform as normally - and we have tried different approaches," she says.

Mrs Gilfillan is now seeing the benefits of early intervention strategies - one of the previous Scottish Executive's signature policies. She sees a big improvement in reading as children come through after three years of extra support. "The reading for information skills are definitely better," she believes.

Like others, Mrs Gilfillan contends that smaller class sizes in P1-P3 have made a difference. The three P4 classes at Kings Meadow have 30, 31 and 32 pupils, compared with 24 in the four P3 classes. "I wish we could carry the smaller classes on," she says.

Each P4 class has a classroom assistant, an initiative that gains fulsome praise. There should be more of them since they make an impact on children, Mrs Gilfillan argues.

The post-McCrone pay and conditions package has pumped more cash into monthly bank accounts but workload remains the issue within the contractual 35-hour week. It is often claimed there has been little return from teachers for their additional pay but that does not play well at Kings Meadow.

"I'm in here at 8.15-8.30am, work half our lunch, leave at 5-5.30pm and work one afternoon a weekend and that is before we come up to report time.

I am sure that is what most teachers have to do," Mrs Gilfillan says.

The west of Scotland head, serving a disadvantaged community, wants ministers to ditch national testing, which continues to distort teaching and is "incompatible with supporting the slower learner". He said: "If you put effort into support for learning, it does not reflect in league tables of national testing."

Ministers may have claimed they do not publish tables but that does not wash with schools.

While new community schools have been at the forefront of the first administration, money on inclusion has mostly been spent on keeping children in school and not on addressing wider issues with parents and families. Reluctant learners impact on others.

At Tweedbank primary in Galashiels in the Borders, senior teachers Anne Revels and Christine Johnson welcome the post-McCrone salary hike yet insist it is still insufficient to attract more men into primary teaching.

"They are also giving with one hand and taking away with the other. For example, we are being asked to pay for staff development and chartered teacher status. We are also worried about the last-minute decisions on job-sizing," Mrs Revels says.

Mrs Johnson picks up a familiar refrain. "We are quite swamped with initiatives from the Scottish Executive and we are not getting a chance to come to grips with one before there is another one."

The priority on inclusion is viewed as "a good idea" but it comes with a cost. "We do not have the staff to cope with it and where does the quality come in?" Mrs Revels asks. More teachers and special needs auxiliaries are needed.

So what would they like from ministers? "Definitely more teachers and smaller class sizes would be wonderful."

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