Successful headteachers who dare to be bolshy

1st November 2002 at 00:00
Teachers should have the confidence to innovate, writes Diane Hofkins.

Here is how one maverick headteacher got permission to circumvent the national curriculum. As it happened, Freda Billingham's programme, which worked for her Birmingham school, entailed concentrating so heavily on literacy in the infants that the full curriculum was not covered. She wrote to the relevant quango (then the National Curriculum Council), and told them what her school was doing.There was no response, so she figured that meant they could carry on. But when she told this story at a seminar, another head said, "How interesting. When I wrote to them and didn't get an answer, I assumed it meant no."

I'd like to kick off this page by urging primary heads and teachers to be more bolshy. Even the Chief Inspector says you should - only he calls it having confidence. David Bell's report last month on successful primary schools pointed to establishments which had the confidence to choose what to emphasise; to use longer blocks of time for sustained work and to help children make connections. He says more decisions about the curriculum should be left to schools. But so many teachers feel they haven't got permission. They come out of training college full of bright ideas, but then they "get nailed down", says Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter. "They're told they have to stick to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work and told Ofsted will get them." That's why, he says, so many teachers say they're not planning to stay in teaching for the long haul.

But others think the teacher education system itself, as it is now set up, is training people to be more like technicians than professionals. They are taught to "deliver" the strategies and the national curriculum, and have trouble believing they are allowed to innovate.

There is no time for reflection, or to really learn about children and child development, says Peter Frost of the National Primary Trust. Even though Ofsted says that it is not out to get teachers, mixed messages are coming from the Government. On the one hand, ministers are encouraging innovation, art, sport and creativity. But the bigger message is that schools have to meet their targets. To this end, they are receiving ever more literacy framework bolt-ons and a (guidance only) chart for monitoring literacy and numeracy throughout Year 6, half-term by half-term. No government in recent memory has understood primary teachers. Ministers always use heavy-handed tactics to browbeat them, when in fact they are so conscientious that they need to be told to worry less, not more. Primary teachers, after all, are the people who invented tick lists to keep track of all the 8,000 assessments expected of them under the original 1989 national curriculum. Apparently, one way that a few schools are circumventing the official targets is to set theirs at 100 per cent. A noble aim. Who can complain if it is missed?

This week's exclusive TES survey turns up some noteworthy differences between older and younger Year 6 teachers. For instance, the younger you are, the more likely you are to believe the literacy and numeracy hours are a spur to creativity (though a slightly larger number believe the reverse).

The over-50s, meanwhile, feel most strongly that these strategies make it harder to be creative, as oddly, do teachers from the South-west.

It is not surprising that teachers trained in the national curriculum and the strategies should feel more comfortable with them than those from the Plowden era. What is alarming is that - despite much outstanding teaching by young staff - so many are afraid to spread their wings. As the Ofsted report says, it takes confident heads to nurture them. Twenty years ago, teacher training focused more on developing a belief system, on asking questions, and on understanding children, even if it did not always cover parts of speech. Universities had a great deal of freedom.

Teacher training is now very heavily regulated and controlled by central government, and the wrong marks from inspectors mean a cut in student numbers. Jeni Riley, head of the school of early childhood and primary education at the University of London, says they try to combine the course they believe in - which includes learning from first-hand experience, child development and creativity - with the required material. But it means the students are "incredibly pushed".

Now that more technical content has to be covered, often in less time, in-service training may have to fill the gap. There are many courses and conferences out there which focus on this sort of thinking. The citizens of the 21st century will need more than literacy and numeracy. Children need to learn how to make connections, make complex choices, teach others what they have learned and use each other's expertise, and take information and change it into a different form.

A key issue is ownership. Perhaps, for now, it is enough for teachers and heads to make the national curriculum their own, and to use it flexibly, as David Bell suggests. But next time they should be involved in building the structure from the ground up; then no-one will feel like a technician.

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