Primary teachers have to be able to specialise

19th January 2001 at 00:00
Curriculum overload can only be addressed if those in the staffroom are given the confidence and the skills they require, says Leonard Franchi

In the past 10 years the 5-14 guidelines have encouraged most primary schools to revamp their curriculum and policies in a way that has not yet happened in the secondary sector. But there can be a downside to slavish adherence to the guidelines - an experienced teacher asked me mockingly:

"How did children learn anything before the advent of 5-14?" Few primary teachers would disagree with the view that the curriculum, especially in the upper primary, is top heavy and that teachers feel under pressure as they are asked to deliver more and more programmes of study in areas in which they themselves may lack confidence.

What do we mean by top heavy? A primary 7 class is likely to study language (almost a curriculum in itself), mathematics, religious education, technology, science, health education, personal and social development, mapping skills, music, drama, art, physical education, information technology, a modern language, drugs education and an environmental studies topic. In most schools one teacher is responsible for the planning, delivery and assessment of of most of this syllabus.

While that range of subjects is of interest in itself and provides (at least on paper) a wide curriculum, the key resource remains the teacher. Happy teachers who feel broadly in control of what they are doing are more likely to teach successfully than those who feel as if they are drowning in a sea of forecast sheets, programmes of work and unrealistic demands.

This can best be explained by the analogy with life in secondary schools, where teachers are generally expected to have a university qualification in their chosen subject. Primary teachers are often called to give lessons in subjects they have not studied beyond S2. How many teachers are asked to teach level D science or art to a P7 class, yet hold no qualification?

I for one always marvel at the children's work when the art specialist takes my class - I can barely draw the curtains. Would we go to Henrik Larsson for a golf lesson if Tiger Woods was available?

There is no point in identifying the problem if we are not prepared to look for remedies. In this case, these need to involve schools, local authorities and the Scottish Executive Education Department.

The priority for headteachersis to appreciate that each staffroom contains people of different talents and qualifications which ideally should be deployed to maximum effect. This could be achieved in the first instance by some form of "team teaching" in which Miss A, who is proficient in art, swops classes once a week with Miss G who happens to be a whiz-kid at science. Something similar happens in some schools already with the primary languages programme.

Most local authorities employ primary specialists in subjects like music and PE. They should urgently expand this service into areas like science and technology, which need to be well taught if they are to be of any value to the pupil. The McCrone committee has seen the advantage in "providing a greater number of specialist staff to the primary schools, perhaps on a cluster basis, in recognition of the breadth of the curriculum that now has to be covered".

This could be done in two ways - introduce permanent or fixed-term contracts for primary "specialists" to work with their other primary colleagues; or arrange further training for serving primary teachers in the traditional "specialist" areas. Such training could involve some form of university-level qualification, for example, a part-time degree at first-year level or courses undertaken during a sabbatical. Such a programme would have financial implications for education authorities, but it would be worth every penny.

However, the bigger picture of curriculum overload can only be properly addressed by a national debate, involving the Executive, about the state of our schools. The opinions of classroom teachers should be given special weight.

Many issues should inform the debate. Among them are: the future of the BEd and PGCE (Primary) degrees; the gap between what is often taught as good practice in teacher education institutions; possible specialisation by primary teachers in either upper or lower primary; the fundamental question whether teachers are professionals in command of their teaching materials, or "trainers" who are simply asked to follow commercially produced teaching plans for all subjects.

I know of few teachers who would dispute the general thrust of this argument. Indeed, there is usually more sense spoken about the curriculum in staffrooms than we generally realise. Perhaps now is the time for all of us to speak up.

Leonard Franchi teaches at St Mary's primary, Alexandria.

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