Time to besiege the ramparts of specialisms

16th October 1998 at 01:00
We had 13 staff vacancies in Holy Rood over the summer. These were largely due to expansion of the school roll which is now hovering around 850, having risen from 548 in 1993. We have managed to recruit very good people but the annual matching of staff to courses without having to declare colleagues surplus is an increasingly difficult act to sustain.

Why is it that secondary teachers can only teach a very narrow specialism, while primary teachers can teach every damned thing? At every stage of the secondary school, there is a need for fundamental reappraisal of the restricted practices with which we work. Riveters in the shipyards resolutely insisted that they would only rivet, and now there are no shipyards and no riveters.

The 5-14 curricular guidelines present an encyclopaedic collection of knowledge and skills for primary teachers to impart to their pupils. At age 12, it is all change, and subject demarcation rules. History teachers teach history. Art teachers teach art.

The inspectorate has proposed fewer subjects and rotation of subjects to reduce the procession of teachers encountered by mesmerised wee people in first and second year. I will probably be struck down for suggesting that there could also be more flexibility in matching subjects to teachers.

An integrated information technology course in S1 and S2 should not be beyond the wit of any computing or business studies teacher and of others who have been initiated into the recondite mysteries of IT. Could a class have the same teacher, for history, geography and modern studies up to the end of S2, assuming appropriate training and good course materials, or would the earth be thrown off its axis by the resultant global shock? Do art and design and craft and design not have sufficient in common to warrant an integrated designed studies course at S1 and S2, taught by a single teacher? We could have a new qualification entitled GTC - "Good Teachers of Children'' to balance the current preoccupation with subjects.

The draft curriculum guidelines suggest that allocations of time in S1 and S2 should be made to five curricular areas rather than to specific subjects. This will remain an idealistic chimera while teachers and their representatives continue to stand guard at the drawbridge to their fortified subject domains. If, on the other hand, teaching staff looked positively at broadening their portfolio of skills, they might encounter fewer individual pupils in the week, get to know them better, and make themselves less dispensable.

The glittering array of subject titles dangled tantalisingly before S3 and S4 pupils has triggered anxiety in generations of parents. The grand options jamboree dates from the days when the majority of pupils left school at 16, and their curriculum required some vocational direction during their final two years. The current reality is that a very large and increasing proportion of pupils will remain in school for S5 and S6, rendering the entire exercise less urgent.

There is now too much choice and there are too many subjects available in S3 and S4. A fundamental review of what young people need to know and do would be a useful starting point.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh.

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