Where did the time go?

18th July 1997 at 01:00
Maurice Galton and Ken Fogelman investigated the use of 'discretionary time' and discovered that primary schools are ahead of the Government in devoting xtra hours to literacy and numeracy

It is still too early, despite the passing of a decade, to agree on the extraordinary period between 1988 and 1993, a period which began with the Education Reform Act and culminated in the teacher organisations' refusal to carry out national curriculum testing. The main actors have all been quick to exonerate themselves personally from any policy failure.

Whatever the truth of their explanations, by 1993, research on teachers' workload showed, according to Professor Jim Campbell of Warwick University, that "for class teachers delivering the broad and balanced curriculum had become . . . not a dream but a nightmare".

As a result Sir Ron Dearing recommended that the national curriculum should be slimmed down to fill only 80 per cent of the school week, yielding 20 per cent discretionary time.

This recommendation was coupled with another - that there should be a moratorium on change until the beginning of the new millennium.

A debate on the future of the new curriculum is already beginning and for this reason the National Union of Teachers commissioned Leicester University to carry out a survey of primary schools tofind out what happened to Dearing's discretionary time.

The research involved 350 schools, all members of the National Association for Primary Education; 46 per cent of the questionnaires, a very high sample, were returned.

The questionnaires were complemented by direct interviews with headteachers. In addition, a number of heads wrote in explaining why they were unable to help. Typical of these was:"We have kept our heads above water and stayed sane, but extras? No way. Briefly, we frankly do not fulfil the curriculum because we haven't the time."

The findings are striking: * only 8.3 per cent of the schools surveyed said that national curriculum requirements could be met within the 80 per cent time limit; * 75 per cent of those questioned said they allowed l0 per cent or less of the total allocated time for discretionary activity and of these 37 per cent had no discretionary time, and only 18 per cent had written a policy governing the use of discretionary time.

Even more striking for future government policy was the finding that 5. 8 hours a week - more than 20 per cent of the 23-hour average teaching week - was given over to literacy at key stage 1. This is already above the recommendation in the Government's White Paper Excellence in Schools that each school should devote a structured hour a day to literacy for all pupils.

Headteacher interviews confirm that most schools use what additional time they have for more English and more mathematics. Indeed, 19 per cent of the completed questionnaires show that schools were now devoting a significant proportion of time to improving test scores.

By contrast the tables confirm that only small amounts of time are given to activities which fall outside the national curriculum.

When asked to indicate the priority they would give to the use of any discretionary time, irrespective of the amount currently available, teachers emphasised literacy and numeracy particularly in Year 1. Personal and social education and citizenship were also given some priority.

However, the perceived loss of the ability to respond to children spontaneously, described by many teachers as "magic moments" ran through the responses. A typical reply urged the introduction of "the opportunities to develop a love of learning and a sense of fun again . . . the national curriculum has actually stifled opportunity for sound early educational experiences being spontaneous and exciting".

Most respondents wanted change and there was an impressive consensus about what it should be. Many simply argued for slimming down the prescribed curriculum, with greater choice, flexibility and discretionary time. However, the majority went into more detail, and called for a reduction in the foundation subjects, particularly at key stage 1.

The actual notion of discretionary time, however, was criticised. According to one teacher "it seems to be like trying to put fog into a plastic bag - possible but not really practical!" For another "the entire notion of discretionary time is mistaken. The national curriculum should provide no more than a set of guidelines."

So, despite the best intentions of Sir Ron to reduce the pressures on teachers, this has not happened. Indeed, some schools, particularly those in the inner city where there were tremendous problems of language and general motivation when children begin school, a siege mentality was evident.

The Office for Standards in Education was seen as hostile and, in particular, where schools attempted to extend literacy and numeracy through a given topic, OFSTED inspectors often did not approve.

In addition, current somewhat naive interpretations of the lessons to be learnt from the Pacific Rim countries conflict with the need for greater flexibility.

There are solutions: * The Government should commission an independent study of the use of curriculum time in primary schools which genuinely takes account of teachers' views.

* Schools with successful records of innovation should be encouraged to experiment with modifying the existing curriculum framework.

* OFSTED should exercise discretion in evaluating the application of the national curriculum.

Above all, our research showed that the Government's assumptions about schools spending too little time on literacy and numeracy is not justified. It would do well to use the revision of the national curriculum to repair the misconceptions and damage inflicted by previous governments by actually basing policy on evidence.

The report of research conducted by Professors Galton and Fogelman is available from the EEO Department, National Union of Teachers. Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9BD

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