Time to rebuild the ramparts

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Huw Thomas thinks content should be shaped more by teachers

I'm a revolutionary. When teaching the Tudors to juniors, I quickly cover the subsequent English Revolution, even though it's not strictly national curriculum. By the end of the afternoon, children usually share my enthusiasm for that defining moment in our history.

When teaching the Tudors, I probably give more time to Thomas More and less to Elizabeth I. Thomas More was bawdy and pragmatic - my sort of saint.

I believe all teaching should be shaped by teachers, rather than warped by other pressures. Therein lies our current tension.

While the primary national strategy and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority encourage schools to shape what is taught to local settings or particular enthusiasms, there is still not enough flexibility. My new school is built alongside the Sheffield Manor, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. It forms the basis of one whole history topic of our own devising that is particularly poignant in a joint Anglican and Catholic school. This TES supplement contains other examples of such creativity.

It's great to see these being promoted from on high.

But I still have qualms. Alongside the encouragement to create, there is still that constraint that warps. Some years ago, I worked in the most culturally mixed school in our city. We approached the QCA with a request to ditch a required history unit to make space for more non-European content. The answer then, as now, was No. The primary strategy manifesto Excellence and Enjoyment comments: "The national curriculum... can either be seen as a springboard for teaching, or as a set of constraints". I want to reply "It's both".

The literacy strategy is a real springboard to creativity - just look at the range of poetry it promotes. However, creativity is warped by accountability, the tail that wags the whole dog. There was a laughable moment a few years ago when the QCA raised concerns that key stage 2 pupils were producing formulaic pieces of writing. Might this not have something to do with the very same authority's tests? The saddest casualty is science. Once a firm favourite among children, the subject is now so often taken over by cramming sessions for Sats.

What better way to celebrate 20 years of the national curriculum than with a revolution? We could craft teaching that starts from current enthusiasms, shaped by interesting and keen teachers who ask children to follow them into the journey of learning (no one should teach anything unless they have been enthused by it - discuss!).

We could use the opportunity to make lessons more relevant. I think economics is more important than than the Romans, and Year 5 and 6 classes should invest in a portfolio. I think genuine, politics-based citizenship should be taught in primaries, possibly cutting back on cumbersome design technology lessons to create the space for it. Not everyone would agree with such a sentiment - that debate could be part of creative reshaping.

Getting the curriculum into shape would involve building in more real, messy creativity, rather than rushed, skill-based art lessons. There are already a few good sparks to start such a revolution. The first is the two national strategies. With literacy and numeracy so secure, surely we can safely experiment with wider matters. The second spark is the foundation-stage guidance. It develops maths and language, while promoting creativity, physical development, and personal education. There's a strand on exploring our world. If you want to find an investigative scientist in primary these days, pop along to the reception class water tray.

A third spark would be creative teachers. Wouldn't it be great if schools could reshape the national curriculum by replacing chunks they can match with a better, more enthusing alternatives? Does anyone really think children would miss studying the Greeks, if the old urns were replaced with a vibrant exploration of the history of piracy?

Such a revolution would need a rallying cry. What about a word that says what our schools are for? Primary schools are not for subjects such as geography, but for imagination, enthusiasm and the development of the child. What about a rallying cry that sums up those ideals, a cry such as "Education, Education, Education"? Revolutionary stuff.

Huw Thomas teaches in Sheffield

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