Very 1970s: themes make a comeback

8th June 2007 at 01:00
TES survey reveals more teachers are switching to pre-national curriculum methods - because they work.

PRIMARY SCHOOLS around England are busy customising their curriculums to tackle themes. The move away from secondary-style subject teaching is being driven largely by teachers and heads, and has accelerated as Ofsted inspectors heap praise on successful primaries that have adopted the approach. And there is a very simple reason: teachers say it works.

Daniel Nelson, a Year 5 teacher at Westgate Hill primary in Newcastle upon Tyne, said: "With subject-based lessons you scratch the surface; with themed teaching, you get more relevant and much more in-depth learning.

"In our topic on the Egyptians, we could spend three or four hours a day doing different aspects of ancient Egypt over a week. Obviously it is a history-based topic, but it incorporates geography, art, ICT and design and technology.

"If we did Eygpt in a history lesson we would do it for half an hour, then leave it for a week."

According to a TES email survey of teachers and heads at 115 schools, about 11 per cent of schools have used themed teaching for some time. A further 27 per cent have moved to a themed curriculum in the past three years.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. The biggest barrier cited by 31 per cent of those polled was that a themed curriculum was difficult and time consuming to plan.

A lack of resources was mentioned by 30 per cent and almost one in five said staff did not want to change. One East Midlands headteacher said: "I am fed up with changing the curriculum."

But most heads are not so hesitant. Jane Considine, an education consultant, charges pound;145 a day to attend her courses in Northampton on designing a connected curriculum. This week's session for 30 delegates was fully booked. "Interest in this area has suddenly exploded," she said.

"When Excellence and Enjoyment: A Strategy for Primary Schools came out in 2003, the local authority bods were raring to go but it was almost as if schools were not ready.

"Now schools realise they need a coherent approach. The children are truly engaged, learning is more distinctive and staff re-energised."

Not all subjects seem to lend themselves to being included in themes. The survey found that 83 per cent of schools taught history and geography in themed lessons, 16 per cent did for maths and 10 per cent for languages, but only 6 per cent taught PE this way.

The flexibility that schools are discovering with the curriculum could be one reason that support for a review of the primary curriculum is muted. An official review is expected to be announced next year, before plans to make teaching a foreign language compulsory at key stage 2.

The TES poll found that 48 per cent of teachers would like to see a foundation stage-type curriculum throughout primary and a further 24 per cent thought it would be good up until age 7.

John Bangs, the National Union of Teachers's head of education, said: "It's time for the Government to make its mind up whether to have a proper bottom-up primary curriculum review which leads to a framework curriculum to help teachers' creativity."

Education without frills, page 18 The Viking invasion: exploring a cross-curricular lesson, Magazine, page 42


A review of the primary curriculum is: urgently needed, 42%; not necessary, 11%; pointless unless tests and tables are scrapped, 46%

Teaching most lessons by themes rather than subjects is something: we have done for more than three years, 11%; we have started in the past three years, 25%; we plan to do, 43%; we do not plan to do, 20%

The primary curriculum should be more like the areas of learning in foundation stage: yes, in key stage 1, 24%; yes, in KS1 and 2, 49%; no, 10%; not sure, 17% There is too much content in the national curriculum: agree, 70%; disagree, 13%; don't know 17%

Source: TES survey

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