Saturday, 29 November 2008

An interesting primary school . . .

Welcome to my new blog, which I hope you'll find interesting. Thanks to my friends who persuaded me to set this up - blame lies particularly with Chris and Pat.

I was reminded today of a meeting I had with my mentor on my teaching course last year, shortly before they threw me off. "Now, Alice, in three weeks' time Bob [another PGCE student] has an interview, and part of that is to deliver a lesson for year 9s on their SAT papers. Now, be honest, I don't think you could do that, could you?" Too depressed to speak, I stared at the wall and shook my head. I wondered why I could explain any scientific concept to thirty-five children or one in a way that made their eyes light up; why they told me I was a good teacher and made earnest suggestions for other ways I could explain things and how I could improve the materials I gave them; how I could write posts about galaxies and astronomy and explain things to strangers over the Internet; but how I couldn't seem to do what the examiners wanted of me.

Things would have been different, I suspect, if I had trained at this school described today in The Independent. Two things leapt out at me about the article (besides the obvious happiness of the children and the parents). One was "no exams". None at all? Are exams the problem? According to the government, of course, they're the solution. "Testing children gives us a reliable indicator of where they are". (Unless they're having a bad day that day, not representative of what they can generally do. Unless the exam doesn't ask them the sort of questions they can answer well. Unless answering questions is not the only skill you need in life. Unless the examiner doesn't know what they're writing about. Unless the school is fed up with and contemptuous of this idiotic regime, and cheats.)

I've nothing against the idea of an occasional exam, as a challenge or as part of getting a qualification. What I am against is exams being the be all and end all. "They only take up a tiny proportion of the children's time in the classroom". Yes, but every single lesson has to be in preparation for them. Every lesson must have two learning objectives on the board (which must be measurable and achievable), and the more these relate to the exams the better. Why else do year 7 pupils arrive at secondary school with stories about having had to give up Art and Music and PE for year 6 to get ready for their SATs?

Do we need to get rid of exams altogether, or is it the general culture we need to change?

The other thing that struck me was the buzzwords around this school. "Its learning is child-led". "The Italian Reggio Emilia schools . . . put the learner at the centre of things". This might as easily have been said by OFSTED to promote personalised learning - a cringe-making fad state schools were caught up in when I began my PGCE, and which was a further box-ticking, time-consuming part of lesson planning. I really feel that the more talk there is around an organisation, the more false all these mission statements of theirs turn out to be, and the less gets done. Does the school buzz with these buzzwords? Or were they added to the article like a shiny paper bow stuck onto pretty wrapping paper, to make the article more marketable?

It's no good showing off how open-minded you are by saying "OK dears, the choice is yours, what do you want?" Otherwise, how will children learn anything? If you don't speak to them, how will they ever progress beyond baby-talk? What really mattered when the boy brought the rock in was that he brought in outside wisdom, luckily introduced by his grandmother. Sometimes the teacher could invent something to do; sometimes one - or more - or all - of the children will have something much better up their sleeve. Experiences like this will encourage them to keep their eyes open outside the classroom, rather than to learn the language the examiners want.

Because modern exams are largely focussed on getting children to write in the language required, rather than learning any facts (let alone expressing their own interpretations of such facts, or doing anything else with them). "It doesn't matter what they're learning, so long as they're learning something". The number of times I heard that. Not to mention, "He's got the answer exactly right, but we can't give him the mark because he's left out the key word".

To me, the truly special thing about Lewes New School is not their fancy phrases. To an extent, it's what the father says: "I wanted my children to love learning". But most of all, it can be summed up in one word: freedom.

A relative who works in a hospital spends far more time filling out forms for the government on how he will implement this policy or that, than actually seeing his patients. However, he's in their good books right now. He leads a project titled "A multi-disciplinary team-building exercise, open to all departments, with weekly reviews and performance indicators". What is it? Fantasy football.

You might want to try it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great blog Alice.
I look forward to part 2.
I share your frustrations with form filling, and ticking boxes.
A complete waste of time.
I just don’t know why this government is so fixated with control.
Fiddling wile Rome burns come to mind.
Anyway, enough with the ranting.
Very enjoyable blog, hope to see more.