Stress, Sats and stereotypes

27th February 2004 at 00:00

Subject Leadership in the Primary School

By Joan Dean

David Fulton pound;16

Promoting Independent Learning in the Primary Classroom

By Jill Williams

Open University Press pound;14.99

Boys and Girls in the Primary Classroom

Edited by Christine Skelton and Becky Francis

Open University Press pound;17.99

Joan Dean's experience as teacher, lecturer and inspector shines through her practical and readable handbook, which will be especially useful to the new subject leader and might well revitalise many a more experienced one.

In an age of distributed leadership (we are all chiefs now) this research-based guide offers a "counsel of perfection" that is unlikely to be achieved but is worth trying to live up to.

The author sets out to "unravel the requirements of the subject leader's role" and succeeds admirably. Chapters deal with policies, schemes of work, development planning, leading the team, monitoring, action research and much more. The advice is supported by up-to-date research and is well illustrated by case studies (several in each chapter) that plot the problems and some of the solutions. Each chapter concludes with "questions for consideration", a sort of checklist that will help the subject leader pinpoint the needs of his or her particular subject and school.

One section is headed "The problem of time" and I half expected that, given the excellence of the rest of the book, Joan Dean was going to provide that particular philosopher's stone and solve the problem for us. Alas not. The problem of doing an essentially undoable job is set out with superb clarity, and several palliatives are offered. The next section, however, is called "Stress". I will be providing time for my own subject leaders to read this book.

Jill Williams's study of independence in the primary classroom examines in detail the tension between, on the one hand, delivering the curriculum and ensuring that children learn, and on the other, allowing pupils independence and ownership.

She aims to counter the problem many teachers face that, working within the current outcome-driven model (get good Sats results, or else) individual creative responses will be lost in a sea of conformity. The schools standards minister, David Miliband, for one would argue that creativity and independence need not be incompatible with high Sats attainment.

The study contains interesting and detailed case studies to exemplify research findings and advice. There is particularly good discussion of the US pre-school research High scope and of the Reggio Emilia approaches to child development, the latter highlighting the importance of time, teachers as active listeners, and, crucially, teachers as learners. The antithesis of this is referred to in research that demonstrates that learning can still take place even where children are frightened of the teacher.

Williams notes, however, that "an atmosphere of fear does nothing for self-esteem or enthusiasm for learning and is unlikely to foster a lasting affection for school". She's writing about the children, of course, but chief inspector David Bell might bear this advice in mind in relation to how teachers are treated in the current umpteenth revision of the Ofsted framework.

I always endeavoured to make sure I got equal opportunities right in my lessons. Empowering the girls without alienating the boys was tricky, and I can't claim to have always got it right, especially after reading the studies in Skelton's and Francis's collection. I was reminded that the strongest period of gender role maintenance is age four to five, but I know from experience that unpicking the gender roles children bring to reception class with them is well nigh impossible.

One of the most interesting things to emerge from these studies is the nefarious role teachers sometimes play in reinforcing gender images. So badly behaved girls are described as "scheming little madams" while boys are simply "mucking about". The underlying message we seem to give to girls is to "look pretty and don't call out".

The contributors try to get beneath the populist assertion that boys underachieve. White middle-class boys do very well, thank you, as do Indian and Chinese boys. Indeed social class, for boys and girls, is the greatest determinant of academic success.

The editors are particularly concerned that girls are being further marginalised by the populist discourse on underachieving boys. Their overview of research findings provides primary teachers with strategies to help counter this. The comments on the macho world of the mental and oral starter in the national numeracy strategy, in which "less confident children, mainly girls, dread being exposed", is particularly thought-provoking.

This is a fascinating collection of essays that all undergraduate teachers would do well to read.

Kevin Harcombe is headteacher at Redlands primary school, Fareham, Hampshire

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