Valuable lessons in fun and games

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Ask any adult what was most memorable from school, and it will never be a worksheet or a national initiative such as Standard grade or Action Plan. Neither will it be an examination or test, unless the person failed or got 100 per cent. No, what will stick most firmly in most people's minds is a human being, a teacher who inspired or struck fear into their heart, usually with the belt. Or it may be a trip, a team, a performance, or a success.

But nowadays we are in danger of giving our young people a school experience that is dramatically skewed towards what is least likely to be memorable - tests, exams, league tables, an overcrowded curriculum.

How many times when teachers get together do you hear complaints that there is no longer room for spontaneity in teaching, that the "characters" are going (usually through early retirement) and that time to get involved in extra-curricular work with pupils is being eroded?

We need a radical re-appraisal of what our schools are for. We know a healthy society is one in which culture and identity can flourish and where the arts are accessible to all. And we know achievement for all can only become a reality when practical, vocational, aesthetic or sporting efforts are as valued as academic ones.

The world of work, we are told, is looking for well-rounded young people - flexible, adaptable and able to learn throughout their life. But the pressure of league tables is driving schools to force-feed "able" youngsters in the upper school a diet of five Highers at six periods each. The 30-period week is entirely taken up by "subjects", with no time for PE, personal and social development or leisure activities. Learning becomes little more than cramming and the whole person's needs are unmet.

So what can be done? We need to challenge the current orthodoxy that schools are concerned with a narrow, measurable, range of achievements. We need to question the curricular guidelines and their time allocations. There is a growing body of literature which argues that the "learning school" is one where all activities contribute to the health of the institution. Effectiveness and efficiency are not the same thing, and a regime of audit, targets and measurement will not replace a culture where people are the key to success.

Primary teachers feel under pressure to deliver breadth as well as depth, and feel there is a drive by Her Majesty's Inspectorate away from traditional "integrated" approaches, to discrete, timetabled subject areas.In secondary, the Sl-S2 curriculum, with its 16-17 subjects, is now untenable, and the S3-S4 structure is impossibly restrictive, especially as schools move towards eight Standard grades to improve their place in the league tables.

The simplistic assumption is that to improve results you squeeze more time into the system. Evidence increasingly points to the Tony Buzan philosophy, "work smarter, not harder". Yet we insist on racing headlong through over-crowded curricula.

We could make a start by looking at the structure of the school day - even the school year. Could we not move back to a situation where extra-curricular activities were at the core of a school?

The former Lothian schools have an asymmetric week, where one afternoon is freed for staff development and a range of extra-curricular activities. This is simply a redistribution of the curricular time over four-and-a-half days.

We could go further, culling time from current curricular areas to build such activities into the school week. They could be linked to existing awards (such as the Duke of Edinburgh) and be springboards for excellence, in the arts, sport and community and work-related schemes. Study support, recognised as a successful initiative to help disadvantaged and under-achieving young people, could become embedded in the system.

There would be resource implications, of course, but where there's a will there is usually a way. What about the National Lottery? Let's say the Government wanted to do something to raise attainment, to tackle disaffection, to promote social cohesion, foster excellence and produce young people who were well-rounded, participators rather than watchers, and who could become involved in making decisionsabout their own lives and their relationships with others. An annual injection of lottery funds, to pay teachers for additional work, to fund sports and arts development officers, to support residential and study support centres, to bring together community groups and mainstream education, would pay dividends.

But what about "standards"? What about exam results and academic excellence? Well, the independent sector, albeit with more generous staffing, has always promoted extra-curricular activities as a core part of its ethos, and the playing fields of Eton have always been as important as the classrooms.

Scottish education needs to take a long hard look at the current set-up. The content and balance of the curriculum needs a review from pre-5 to post-16, and not in "chunks" but as a whole, continuous and progressive process. We could easily trim the content of the curriculum - and help pupils become more effective learners. We could restructure the week to allow space for these activities and for quality staff development. And we could secure funding to make the links between the teachers and the professionals in the official bodies.

We might even, in a flight of fancy, prepare the ground for excellence in Scottish sport and arts, as well as in other creative activities such as enterprise. Above all else, schools would become places where all young people can succeed, and where the drive to make society a better and fairer place could begin.

Brian Boyd is associate director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University

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