It was a wet Wednesday afternoon and to say the classroom was in a state of disarray would be something of an understatement. Cardboard boxes teetered in unsteady piles on every desk; sheets of tin foil sparkled from all corners of the room; glue, glitter, paint and tissue paper festooned every flat surface. It was the end of our “space” topic and we were celebrating by recreating the universe in all its technicolour glory.
I was just helping some children with their rings on Saturn when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the door open and my heart sank. Into our cosmological chaos stepped the head with a couple of prospective parents. As they stood there surveying the scene, I became acutely aware that noise levels had reached maximum pitch, that one child had taken his shoes off and was sitting on his desk and that several children were spattered with blue paint.
I gave them a smile that I hoped said “I’m in total control of the learning”, but inwardly I was kicking myself. We should never have attempted this. We’re upper key stage 2. We should be staring at an interactive whiteboard. I was resolving never again to attempt whole-class art projects when I heard the head say, “This is what primary education is all about.”
I was completely taken aback. Occasionally, in this target-driven world, you hear the odd mention of education being fun but you don’t always believe it. In too many schools, fun is what happens for an hour or two when Sats are over; when it’s nearly Christmas; when everyone’s hit their target on the spreadsheet.
Which is a shame, because the schools that pursue the perfect data at all costs are missing one of the most important elements of primary education – it should be enjoyable.
Ask any adult about their school days and the chances are their memories of primary school will be happy ones. Our children won’t remember the peer-editing, the Sats practice papers and the naming of grammatical parts. They won’t recall how closely we tracked their data. They’ll remember playtime games; history topics; science experiments; trips; sports days and school plays. They’ll remember that time you stood on your desk and your bad jokes.
Too much micromanagement from above only drives teachers to play it safe. You replace a science experiment with an online film so you have longer to get work in the books. You allow children to miss art and music lessons to work on maths interventions. You skip the end-of-day story for some more peer assessment to make the books look good. You laugh less; you stop standing on your desk and start looking over your shoulder. The whole business becomes much more serious and, often, attainment doesn’t even rise.
So if you find a school where having fun is paid more than just lip service and trashing your classroom in the cause of space art is not only tolerated but smiled upon, my advice is to climb on your desk and stay put.
Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands