What goes around, comes around

12th September 2003 at 01:00
ome smart alec author once described nostalgia as "the vice of the aged".

But if twentysomethings can dress up in uniform for a school disco night or look upon the nineties as a golden age, I can confess to a recent bout of nostalgia for the 1970s without claiming my pension.

It began with news of the Scottish Executive's free fruit in schools scheme. No stick of rhubarb and poke of sugar here. There are to be choices in the pursuit of healthy eating habits. One day a banana. The next, slivers of mangos or lime and on the third morning a cocktail of tropical tastes and textures. Napkins will be provided and the daily event will begin with a mass hand-washing. Actually, no one in school ever washes their hands but that's another story.

The palaver of the fruit reminded me of the days of school milk which was drunk in a deep silence. It was downtime for the brain as 40 pairs of eyes glazed over after the efforts of wrestling with decimal long division. In the milk era, long before 5-14, much primary classwork was covered in topics. They were killed off by strands, attainment outcomes and so-called "guidelines". Real learning is messy and does not always fit precisely worded targets.

During the 1990s, topic work was airbrushed from history and not considered fit for polite conversation. Many of us were so embarrassed by our association with the discredited 1970s that any mention of integrated topics was accompanied by furtive glances over the shoulder. Not any longer, I think.

The tide is turning for topic teaching and the say so has come from none other than our friends at the Scottish Executive in circular 32001. The people who brought us 5-14 now tell us that it is not the only way to organise the curriculum. We are to be flexible in our organisation of learning so that we can accommodate individual needs and changing circumstances. Of course, we must justify any changes in terms of the 5-14 oracle.

There are secondary schools - it's happening south of the border too - that are taking up this challenge at S1 and S2. For part of the year, subject boundaries are removed and replaced with multidisciplinary planning and learning. Their courses bear titles like energy, forests or making the news. One school explains: "As part of the energy project students designed and built windmills in design, with sail dimensions and shapes calculated in maths. In science, the windmills were used to drive a motor and the electrical charge produced measured."

If you are of a certain age, you will recognise all of this. Yes, step forward the Primary Memorandum, topic webs, the spiral curriculum and centres of interest. Rummage in your cupboards and you might find your notes for Vikings or transport or food. Best of all, do you still have the Craigie kits, The Sea and Underground, with their successful combination of English, science, technology, art, music and history? (Craig Brown was in the writing team before his career nosedived into football management.) Discovering my battered Puffin copy of The Day of the Pigeons by Roy Brown, circa 1974, reminded me of the range of activities a topic would contain.

My minuscule text notes show predictive reading, writing, art, maths and science and, to my astonishment, that we were tackling issues such as racism and disability. Thirty years ago most primary teachers taught like this. How ironic that secondary schools are now exploring the topic approach as a means of introducing flexibility.

Circular 32001 is addressed to primary schools too. Is it not time for the 1970s generation of primary teachers to turn our nostalgia from vice into virtue and use our experience of topic teaching to enhance the curriculum? Just leave the flares and moustaches behind.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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