Who could dream up a new A-level course but give teachers no time to research or prepare for it?

16th February 2001 at 00:00
The kids get study leave, so why not us?

Ispent the Christmas before last reading Irish history of the past 2,000 years. I made notes, constructed time lines and made up activities that would keep Year 13 happy while I figured out what to do next.

The reason for all this intellectual activity, while everyone else was kissing under the mistletoe, was that I was teaching Seamus Heaney when we went back to school, and I didn't know a thing about him. A friend reminded me that I had done Seamus Heaney for A-level, which I had completely forgotten. Then I felt even more useless because I still didn't understand it.

But after hours of work I taught quite a good scheme. My sixth form enjoyed it and I thought: "Great, let's line that one up for next year." Then I looked at our new A-level specifications and discovered there was no Seamus Heaney, no Mansfield Park - none of the stuff I had been researching and teaching for the past two years.

Instead there were more texts, hardly any of which I had read; some of which I would like to read, but hadn't got round to; and some of which I had no interest in touching with a barge pole. And, as well as texts, there was "context", which - in teaching terms - means research, which takes hours, which means less time for me. Brilliant.

So last Christmas I filed the old schemes of work I had slaved over, and opened a new, intimidatingly empty, file for information I would gather on Sylvia Plath. This was a poet I knew nothing about, although I had read the Bell Jar during a phase of teenage angst after my GCSEs.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't expect to be teaching the same thing for the rest of my career, and I don't like sticking slavishly to the same old schemes of work. I've taught Of Mice and Men for three years in a row, and even the pathos of the final chapter is beginning to lose its attractions.

But I resent these initiatives that seem to have been dreamed up by people who have little contact with day-to-day teaching and ho seem to lack any understanding of or respect for the work that's gone before. How can you consolidate and improve when topics change every year?

I like teaching the new A-level specification, but I have had to go back to my student days of reading and researching books. I enjoy this, but unlike my time at college I now have other classes to prepare and assess, and I can't devote a day to sitting in the library. And, you have to ask, who could possibly dream up a new A-level course but give teachers no time to research or prepare for it? If the kids get study leave, why not teachers?

My frustration over the A-level must have been shared by my primary colleagues when the literacy hour was introduced. I like what the literacy hour has to offer at key stage 3, but I wasn't called upon to teach it day in, day out, at just a few months' notice.

I remember a primary head saying some of her colleagues had broken down and cried at the prospect of it. Perhaps policy-makers believe teachers were crying with joy, or even with relief.

I know I must get used to changes. I'm determined to adopt a positive attitude, because I don't believe all changes are for the worse. But when I breeze into my sixth-form lesson with a wealth of knowledge about Sylvia Plath, I will also be carrying a chip on my shoulder that I did it at the expense of my holiday time, or my friends and my relationship.

But I would like to know who makes these decisions about curriculum and policy change? And I would like to know how they expect their bright ideas to be transformed into practice in the classroom. If they have any ways of doing it, perhaps they would like to come into school and show me - if they've entered a school in the past 20 years, that is.

I feel like a rabbit that is always trying to stare out the lights of a juggernaut. There are only so many times you can escape being run over.

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer school, Edmonton, north London Email: gemmaw@callnetuk.com

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