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When I started teaching...

When I started teaching there was no one peering over my shoulder every two minutes to check I had ticked all the appropriate boxes

What have we come to? In a recent TES poll, a significant number of primary teachers admitted they were so used to cramming for Sats that they wouldn't know what to teach if the tests were abolished.

I worry a lot about the disappearing art of teaching. People should teach if they can give children a real enthusiasm for learning: inspire them, make them laugh, make them care about each other and give them a passionate interest in the world. In turn, children have a right to expect their teachers to be stimulating, knowledgeable people, not automatons who are endlessly worrying about targets and handing out photocopied worksheets.

But rather than trust teachers to get on with the job, our leaders constantly try to crack nuts with sledgehammers. I remember when the literacy hour descended, like a lead balloon and about as interesting.

Prescriptive, constricting, and costing a fortune, it has done precious little to encourage children to become avid readers or writers. And just in case any teacher considered introducing it in anything but the prescribed manner, even the words we had to use were included in the pack. Patronising and deadly dull spring to mind.

When I started teaching, the Plowden report was transforming primary education. There were no Sats to worry about, no detailed lesson plans to be handed in daily for scrutinising by senior managers who've spent so much time out of the classroom they've forgotten what a child looks like. Of course I planned - in detail - and my plans fitted into the school's carefully devised curriculum, but there was no one peering over my shoulder every two minutes to check I had ticked the appropriate boxes or accounted for the last five minutes of the morning.

Teachers had time and space to breathe. They could organise the day in a way best suited to their children, and while some ran a fully integrated day, in my classroom the mornings tended to be skills-based and intensive.

But, importantly, the curriculum could be made exciting, and if we wanted to spend time on a particular project, we were free to do so.

I remember undertaking a topic on the cinema, after talking to my Year 6 class about the influence of the media. We'd been concerned about the amount of litter in the school grounds, and since the school had a movie camera and projector, we decided to make a short film about it. The children produced story outlines, one was chosen, and a storyboard designed. A creature arrives from Planet Tidy, is horrified to see children dropping litter, and uses its amazing powers to make the litter jump back on to the children who dropped it. Making the 10-minute film involved three weeks of intensive work: acting, writing, directing, science, art, special effects, problem-solving. We also had to design and build a creature that could be animated convincingly.

Eventually it was finished and ready for its premiere. We advertised (lots to be learned here, too!) and each class was shown the film. It was a great success, and other classes were encouraged to write reviews and articles, and to take up the theme of keeping the school tidy.

These days, I'm always delighted when I see capable young teachers finding inventive ways of tackling the national curriculum. Nevertheless, when I peer through my rose-tinted spectacles, I tend to think the children in the less prescriptive days had the best of it.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.

Email: mikejkent@aol.com

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