Education Quandary: My children seem to be doing a lot of topic work. Wouldn't they learn better by studying separate subjects?

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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

Thirty years ago, topic work was hugely popular in primary schools. For weeks, children would study "France" or "deserts", colouring in pictures of the Eiffel Tower, and coming to school dressed as gendarmes or Bedouin.

Then people began to wake up to the fact that with all the dressing-up and so on children were not always learning useful things like how to read and write. In came the national curriculum, and by 1991 poor old topic work was being slated as "fragmentary and superficial teaching and learning" by educationalists looking into why primary schools weren't delivering the goods.

For the next decade topic work kicked its heels, while separate subjects ruled the roost. But as the national curriculum bedded down and teachers grew more confident, they began to think about how exciting it would be to deliver the national curriculum via subjects that would really engage their pupils - the Olympics, say, or the rainforest, or Britain in wartime. Very soon, topic work was back on the map with a vengeance, Ofsted gave it a thumbs up, and today at least a third of primary teachers are using theme-based learning.

Is it a good way to teach? It entirely depends how well it is done. You can have great subject lessons and lousy topic work, and terrific topic work and terrible subject lessons. One way to find out might be to quiz your children about how much they feel they are learning. Young consumers are often by far the most accurate judges of what is going on in their classrooms.

Readers' advice

Back in the 1980s, my son spent a whole term at his "lovely" local primary school studying - I can still hardly believe it - the world of Beatrix Potter! He made a stuffed cat and drew a sewing machine, but did almost no reading or maths. When we moved him to a private school, he was more than a year behind his classmates and had to be given masses of extra work to catch up.
Cecily Wright
London W4

As adults we only bother to learn things when we are interested, or when we have a good reason to want to know them. At school I never properly learned about percentages, even though we did them in maths lessons, but when I needed to understand credit-card bills, I quickly made the effort. Why should we expect children to want to know things for their own sake? Much better to get them interested via real-life subjects.
Jamie McDonald
East Lothian

You are probably thinking of old-fashioned topic work, which was often unstructured and not monitored. Today's teachers know they must base project-based learning around national curriculum goals, so that pupils cover all the ground that they need to. If anything is left out, they know they must teach it separately. In my experience in three different schools, themed work engages children much more than teaching them separate subjects, provided it is properly planned and executed.
Milly Dewent

Next week's quandary

Does anyone know how to make a child keep up their music practice? I have a daughter who is a gifted cellist, but I cannot get her to do the practice she must do if she is to make progress. She likes playing and doesn't want to give it up, but we are falling out badly over how often she practises.

Send your letters to Hilary Wilce, at The Independent, Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.