Enter a primary school in the lead-up to Christmas and you might expect to see tinsel halos and shepherd outfits aplenty as children rehearse their lines for the school play.
But not at Barming Primary School in Maidstone, Kent, where Christmas festivities were “rationalised” this year amid tough Ofsted scrutiny and a need to raise standards.
Andrew Gould, Barming Primary’s acting headteacher, told TES that he chose to end school plays for all but Reception pupils because he “could not justify” taking children out of lessons to rehearse.
Doing so risked shifting the focus of the school away from teaching and learning, at a time when it is working to reverse an “inadequate” Ofsted judgement, he said.
Mr Gould’s decision provoked an angry campaign from some parents and a series of newspaper headlines, describing him as a “Grinch” who had “cancelled Christmas”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he disputed this.
“It was a good seasonal story for them – I’m a pantomime villain,” he said. “But I haven’t banned Christmas, as has been publicised. I’ve merely rationalised Christmas.” He pointed out that children in Reception will still take part in a nativity play, and older pupils will have a family evening of carol singing.
‘The spectre of Ofsted’
But Mr Gould, brought in to turn the school around in April in the wake of the bad Ofsted report, said that Christmas preparations could have jeopardised the school’s progress.
“In the past what had happened was that in the lead-up to Christmas, children from Reception to Year 5 put on a play. There were four separate plays. So three-quarters of the school would have been out of class a lot of the time, or in class rehearsing,” he explained. “I said, ‘I can’t have the spectre of HMIs [Ofsted inspectors] on my doorstep saying, ‘Why are all the children out here and the teachers are not planning for anything?’
“I couldn’t justify that number of kids being out of class, and teachers losing their focus on learning and classroom practice.”
As it happens, inspectors did come calling just days after Mr Gould announced his plans to pare back Christmas, and he was relieved that they could see the school functioning as normal. And according to the president of the NAHT headteachers’ union, Mr Gould is probably not alone in putting a dampener on celebrations. “I would suspect that a lot of colleagues are very concerned that they just can’t take the time out from the curriculum,” said Tony Draper, head of Water Hall Primary School in Milton Keynes.
“They would say that the curriculum is too pressurised, and the pressure on them to achieve outcomes is too great, for them to take their eye off the ball.”
But for Graham Frost, headteacher of Robert Ferguson Primary School in Carlisle, the decision is a sad indictment of the high-stakes accountability system. “I think it’s a shame that the current system of accountability does sometimes cause such trepidation that it colours decision-making,” he said.
“Schools are being encouraged to focus on [teaching] things that you can measure in an exam and it does distract them from other activities that are valuable and important parts of learning.”
Mr Frost said that his school “does Christmas very well”, with three separate Christmas plays, as well as Christmas crafts and a day out. “I hear of headteachers saying, ‘[There should be] no Christmas activities until such and such a date because preparing for performances and other Christmas-related activities can take up a lot of time’.
“Being part of a play, learning songs and lines, and performing in front of an audience teaches children important things that you can’t necessarily test in an exam. And children need the light and joy that Christmas can bring.”
How to protect core learning in the run-up to Christmas
It requires less rehearsal time than a nativity play, and children can practise in their own classrooms. But it also keeps parents and the community happy.
2. Nothing says “Christmas” like a bit of maths
Maths lends itself to seasonal activities. Children can make times-table paperchains, or Christmas-cracker number bonds.
3. Panto projects
Many schools either take children to a pantomime, or invite in a touring performance. This can link to art work or writing exercises.
4. Pre-plan your role-play areas
Choose a theme that can be “Christmassed up” with minimal effort. A post office, for example, can be made seasonal with the insertion of a few Christmas cards and some tinsel.
5. Make Christmas cards
This is also an opportunity for teachers to talk about the gift of giving, and to counter the commercialism of Christmas.
6. We wish you a multicultural Christmas
Christmas is a great opportunity to discuss different cultures’ festivals and celebrations.
7. Christmas comes but once a year
Try to avoid devoting half a year to it. Starting to rehearse the nativity play in October not only takes up valuable curriculum time, but it can also lead to seasonal fatigue.
Tips from Alice Edgington, assistant headteacher at St Stephen’s Infant School, Canterbury