Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start.
When you read you begin with ABC
Let's see if I can make it easier
As a parent of three, step-parent to three and a grandparent to eight, I have had a lot of opportunities to view children growing up; the current span is from 15 months to almost 15 years. Each of the family settings varies, in place, parental jobs and therefore available time and in disposable incomes. These variables inevitably play some part in the opportunities that are available to each family and therefore on the cultural potential made available to each child.
The children grow and flourish through their parental love, diet and their spoken language, with appropriate encouragement to make marks and to enjoy books.
The environment that surrounds young children today is different from that which I enjoyed. Not in terms of the natural world, where there are still plants, animals and natural features; in some cases just… but perhaps their opportunity to engage with it, with an interested adult able to point out the different elements and to provide the names of things. There are also the distractions of the digital world. Whereas as a child, I was more au fait with string and a penknife and den making, today’s young have early access to screen distractions and can very soon work their way into desired apps.
I have long worried that a school cannot rely on a child’s ability to identify easily with the elements of their locality to support their speaking, their reading and their writing attempts. Having spent time as a volunteer, leading wildlife groups, it was clear in the 1980s that it was a minority interest. Education does still rely, to some extent on a child’s experience beyond the school gates.
How does a child describe the feeling of walking on sand in bare feet, paddling in the sea or lake, getting caught in a rain storm, walking through long grass, the sound of leaves being walked on or kicked, and so many other things, if they haven’t had the opportunity?
Can we build a strong curriculum and strong education on missing experiences? Is experience the beginning of “knowledge rich” education, in that it provides a base for things to “stick” to?
What’s school? People, places and things
Organise rooms, which used to be defined as 55 sq m for a group of 30 children, or a currently defined infant classful.
Supply desks and chairs; this has varied over time, with discussions about the amount of table space needed.
There’s also been wide variation on whether to supply personal storage space for books; should children be responsible for their own exercise books or should they be centralised? Either decision can cause logistical issues when books are needed for a lesson; either movement of each child to find their one book, or teacher/monitors to give out books. This can be pre-empted between lessons, getting out books on entry to the classroom, or someone must give them out before the lesson; assuming places are known…
Classroom resources need a retrieval and return system that can facilitate whole class lessons as well as intermittent needs; variation between age groups, from picture clues to written headings.
Space, resources and time have always been the variables within a school and teacher’s organisational control.
How much space is available to support the learners, and how is it orientated to support the teaching that is likely to happen?
How desks are arranged, to allow sight lines, ease of movement around the classroom, for children and adults, but also to facilitate different areas of the curriculum. Alteration to the needs of different subjects and teaching may need to be easily accomplished; I have seen whole classroom reorganisation within a couple of minutes, accompanied by a piece of music. “I can’t do x because of the way tables are arranged.” does not seem to me to be a reasonable response. Where there’s a will…
Throughout my teaching career, there have been shelves of resources that have been bought at some stage, because they seemed a good idea at the time or because the sales patter was irresistible. They gathered dust through lack of use, often because newer staff were unaware of the potential of the resource. There’s a significant need to keep on top of learning resources, to ensure that they are up to date and do the job that’s required of them. Collated and identified, they are more likely to be used than if they are just in a pile somewhere.
There’s probably a similar kit of resources in every classroom, centred around the stationery, which also needs some organisation. Painted tins and glass jam jars were a feature of my first classroom. Today there’s a variety of plastic tool boxes (scissors, erasers rulers), cutlery drawers (paint brushes) or cutlery holders for pens and pencils. Classroom desks can also sometimes be awash with SPaG reminders, or similar prompts.
Maths, reading, writing, art corners might be created, as resource bases, with topic resources brought in to need, from a central collection.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that time in school is under teacher and school control, but, some organisational elements can exert control over the available time that puts pressure on lesson dynamics, especially for some vulnerable learners who can’t quite get things finished. If it’s clear that a child has worked hard, for them, and needs a bit of finishing time, does this mean part of a playtime lost, or can the teacher allow a few extra minutes in order for the child to finish?
We have been in a period where maths and English have seemed to dominate the curriculum. Some organisation of this, sets for example, impose a timetable need. This can mean that some children might not be able to access the learning in the available time, but, in a classroom setting, perhaps the teacher can make an executive decision to add a few necessary minutes to a lesson, to bridge a playtime and allow children some “finishing off time” rather than rushing and not completing or not being able to show their best efforts.
It’s also possible to find many examples where tasks/activities are chosen to fill the set time, rather than being able to challenge all children, limiting some.
School time is often extended through “homework”. At Primary, if homework is to be seen as a useful adjunct to school work, I would prefer to see talking homework, eg a question or an image to discuss, with the outcomes of discussion feeding back into lessons. Click on the blue title to open a linked blog.
Primary Curriculum; a child’s world?
There have been great similarities across my career in the curriculum offerings of every school. For a start, there was always mathematics, more often than not supported by a bought scheme. The strictness of adherence to the scheme varied from school to school, but, in all cases, we were required to use the Teacher’s Guide as our methodological “bible”, to ensure consistency of approach.
English varied more from school to school, with the majority drawing heavily on the topic curriculum for stimuli for talk and writing. Reading, from around 1975 was supported by the Cliff Moon colour coded system, with different layers of books available to the children; one at teacher level, where there might be a small number of errors, and one at more fluent levels, to read in free time or at home, with or without a parent. Most of the schools in which I worked in the 70/80s also had a Home-School reading diary, with parents encouraged to record their thoughts from hearing their children read. It was very much individualised and we were encouraged to hear children read regularly. Writing was collated into excellent practice during the National Writing Project 1985-8. It mirrored what good schools were already doing, but also gave the basis for conversation between schools about what constituted good writing experiences.
Topic work enabled science, history and geography to lead investigation, with music, PE (dance), DT and art to be used to interpret the outcomes of the investigation. This element of the curriculum provided the opportunities for report writing, letters, note taking and a range of genres with imaginative narratives. The school library was a source of investigation through reading non-fiction texts, using the index and contents list to find out facts for themselves and to share with their classmates, often producing a glossary display; an alphabet of…topic.
It is interesting to me that the 1987 National Curriculum was a 95% correspondence with that which my and other local schools were doing. It meant small tweaks rather than big alterations.
I am finding the current discussion on the broader curriculum a little stilted at times. There will be significant similarities across time and there will already be a lot of good practice that can be retained.
Planning is essential.
Topic details; essential knowledge to be shared; key questions to be explored; resources available within the school or locally. When I was a head, we developed “topic specs” in around 1993.
Link opportunities between the topic and spoken, read and written English, or mathematics; using and applying knowledge from each to benefit the other, making appropriate links.
Timescales allocated and the order of study, to enable learning from earlier topics to impact on subsequent learning.
Organised into an annual plan, it’s possible to ensure coverage and also sufficient opportunity to explore specifics in depth, knowing that the year was planned.
It’s useful to have an end point for each topic area, maybe a small museum, a display, a performance, piece of art, music or drama/movement, with the potential for an audience to provide the spur for higher quality outcomes.
In many ways, it is sad that we have reached a point in our education history where we are having to reinstate that which was already there in many cases. The 2014 curriculum changes were such that elevating maths and English to such heights distorted teacher efforts, in schools and across training providers who have to follow Government expectations. It takes time and effort to develop curriculum, to articulate a school approach, to embed this into daily practice and then to evaluate and refine, with a constant need to revisit when there are new staff who will need support and mentoring.
For interest, here’s my school KS2 science overview from 2004; based on 7.5 hours per week, blocked time to need.
There’s much talk of cultural capital. We need to look at life experiences, too…
Is showing children pictures the same as being there?