Teaching Subjects, Teaching Children: Topic-based Teaching within a Subject-based National Curriculum
Soon after the advent of the National Curriculum an article entitled 'Will there still be time for Rainbows?' was published. This title crystallized the concems of many teachers of early years pupils; that the National Curriculum would dictate so much about what should be taught, how and when, that there would be no possibility for them to adhere to one of the tenets of child-centredness to respond to a stimulus when it presents itself. In this chapter lexamine the extent to which the National Curriculum has challenged another tenet of primary pedagogy; that the curriculum should not be taught in discrete subject packets but in an integrated way through a thematic approach or topic work. 1
From the Plowden Report (Central Advisory Council for Education (England, 1967) and the Gittins Report (Central Advisory Council for Education (Wales), 1967) onwards the thematic approach was as central to the early years curriculum as it was to primary education. Advisors, primary educationalists and teachers all publicly endorsed its virtues. During the late 1980s however, as I detail in Cox and
Susan E. Sanders
Sanders (1994) teachers perceived this approach to be under attack not only from the structure of the National Curriculum but from government through sponsored discussion such as that by Alexander, Rose and Woodhead (1992) in a document known as 'The Three Wise Men Report'. As Anning (1995) highlights
... for Early Years teachers with a deep-rooted belief in a curriculum based on children' s developmental needs and interests, the dominance of subject knowledge in the professional discourse about the reforms left them feeling alienated and undervalued. (Anning, 1995, p. 6)
What has interested me since I first worked in a famously 'progressive' school in the early 1970s is the extent to which primary school teachers (and in particular teachers of early years pupils) really do teach in 'Plowdenist' ways. This was critically refocused for me when I joined a Higher Education Institution (HEl) situated in an area where the local advisors wholeheartedly espoused thematic approaches but my informal observation revealed a range of teaching approaches employed in many schools. In the next section I revisit some of the arguments in Cox and Sanders (1994, Chapter 9) and discuss them in light of our (and others') more recent research in an attempt to clarify the reality of early years classrooms.