Monday 12 February 2007

Up with Skool

At a committee meeting a fortnight ago, we were treated to an explanation by one of the senior teachers of the preliminary planning he has been doing, regarding the way he would like the school curriculum to go in the future. It was fascinating, daunting and quite exciting (if you're the sort of person who gets excited by school curriculums. Or curricula. It seems that I am). He also told us about other educational changes likely to be in the pipeline; since the school is just coming through an entire reorganisation of its staffing structure - superbly planned and executed, I will say, it's working well - and S*ff*lk is likely to be going from a 3-tier system to a 2-tier one (changing schools at 11 rather than 9 and 13), I was, ultimately, more daunted than enthused, although it was quite a close contest.

But since then, I have become enthused again. However, HOWEVER, this all depends on how the government decides to play it.

You may have seen this in the papers last week. Skip through all the bumph about Mandarin, I have no idea where that is coming from so suddenly - the Times has given a 'teach yourself Mandarin CD' and is blathering on about it constantly. The last time they got this sort of bee in their bonnet, they pretended all their readers were writing in begging them to make the newspaper sodding tabloid so that they could make it an annoyingly titchy paper and lied IN THEIR TEETH saying that it was responding to reader pressure when it had never been mentioned before, so maybe it will be printed in Mandarin any day now and I will have to read another paper instead. Um, don't worry, I may digress but I never lose the thread, even if my listeners (or readers) are old and grey by the time I've finished - the key words (back to this article I've linked to) are 'give teachers more flexibility' and 'interest and enthuse their pupils'.

The preliminary plans he showed us were his own interpretation of a curriculum that would, ideally, cater for each pupil, whatever his or her aptitude or ability. His view is - and it is certainly one I share - that many pupils are completely turned off school in their teens, if not before. And I've said this for years - I don't blame the poor little buggers - if you are destined not to be one of life's academic achievers, you will spend many years at school feeling not good enough. Destined to fail. In your vulnerable teens, to be put in the bottom set of everything. Knowing that, however hard you tried, you would still be in the bottom set - how surprising is it that many of them play the fool or worse? How much better would it be to offer a curriculum that teaches you what you really need, whether it's understanding how interest rates can rip you off or working out the best get-out score in darts (and how many "underachievers" can do that? - lots of them) and prepares them for working life, with basic 3Rs and general knowledge, plus useful vocational training.

On the other side of the same coin, too many bright students in middle-ranking schools have little chance of reaching their full academic potential. I know about that, I went to a nice traditional girls' school where we were taught nice traditional girls' subjects and no chance of much science or languages. I went to the just-turned-comprehensive former Grammar School to take Latin and French A levels; I'd already taken English and History but that was about all they could do, except Art which I couldn't and Biology, where I'd have been the only one in the class. I was stunned by the education I could have had, and which has now almost vanished from state schools.

The plans outlined could put this right. Cater for the aptitude of each child. It could be so good. However, it is also vastly complex - it's all very well, talking about focusing on obscure subjects for a term at a time, or having 15 minute lessons, but where are the teachers? How do you timetable? Move a thousand children to a different room for 15 minutes? It all needs to be thought through.

There are a few things to watch out for. One is not to make it 'topic based'. They tried that in primary schools a few years ago. The idea was that you linked history, geography, maths, literacy, all in one lesson - yes there was some merit in the theory, but the result was that nothing was taught properly.

Another is to offer it to the schools and let them run with it. Don't dictate. If a school does not want to go that way, don't make them. Of course, there are still the areas of the core curriculum and these probably will still go in the league tables (because we have a government that thinks you make a pig put on weight by weighing it) but trust them to know their strengths and get it right.

Nothing this government has yet done gives me a great deal of hope about that, but some pretty imaginative people have managed to get the plans to the drawing board, at any rate. My school is looking to press on, to a greater or lesser degree, with its plans. I don't know what the result will be, but I still need to decide whether to become really engaged in it, or to get out while I haven't had to do any work.


Imperatrix said...

Oh my god. Change classes every 15 minutes? How much time woud be wasted in the hallways that way! Impera's school (grades 6, 7, 8) just went the other way: increased blocks from 45 minutes to 70 minutes. The teachers feel they get more real teaching in that way.

Call me an old fogey (and by your standards, I am; I missed the younger generation cut-off you mentioned last week -- 36 yo, I think -- by a measly 3 years), but I liked the days of learning phonics, and memorizing times tables, and learning grammar (they don't do that in the States anymore).

Last year the 6th graders did a topic-based project. They were still taught all the subjects separately, but then they had two months to learn about a state (geography), its history (history), plan an itinerary and create a journal of their "visit" (English/writing), pick a car and use its mileage info to figure out how long it would take to go from itinerary point to point, how much gasoline they used, etc (math). The kids (all 213 of them) loved it, many made a regional "treat" from their state (home ec) to share with visitors on family night, when they presented their research. That was a great way to keep the subjects separate, but use them in topic-based learning.

Once again, I find I've hijacked your comments. Sorry!

y.Wendy.y said...

Funny you should post this.

Yesterday I was thinking about the subjects offered at school and wondering why it's all so rigid and kids are forced to do things that are unsuitable for them. I had a lot more going through my mind too - was going to blog it but lost the plot a bit. You said it quite nicely for me.

I must think about this some more though.

Z said...

One innovation the school brought in a year or so ago was to have a five minute break for a snack half way through double lessons. It really works well - the pupils are not allowed to leave the room, but they relax, chat, eat a biscuit or something and then refocus for the next period. It is surprisingly effective.

The project you describe was the sort of thing they were trying, but with younger children (years 2,3,4) and it was just too vague and unfocused - they didn't understand what they were supposed to be learning.

They teach phonics again now but most of the teachers didn't learn grammar and find it hard to teach.

You are still wonderfully young, just not young enough to be my daughter.

And my comments are there to be hijacked - I find it a bit shocking that my own comments on my blog are nearly as long as the posts. I like the conversational nature of commenting though.

Z said...

Wendz, I'm really glad that at last educators are thinking of what education is for. If this (or a realistic version of it) is to work, schools must be given time and freedom.

Monozygote said...

Well, even though you obviously know far more about this than I do, I do have to say: "15 minute lessons? How can children learn anything if they have to stop every fifteen minutes? And how's that going to prepare them for the real world out there?"

I also think that less able pupils will be equally less able to understand interest rates as they are to understand integration and differentiation. Though I guess it will be harder for them to argue that they don't see the point of it in the former case.

Monozygote said...

ps Dumb Q (sorry):
What was wrong with the old education system anyway?

Z said...

The Times article is not that helpful, Dandelion. But the suggestion is to move away from the precise 6 equal-length period school day. Even that would be quite tricky to timetable.

I've written such a long comment that I've decided to make it into another post!

heybartender said...

"...general-secretary of the NUT."

Well, that took me a minute to get past. Honestly, education is fascinating and frustrating, and something I have thought a lot about. In the U.S. schools are funded by local property taxes, so wealthy kids get wealthy schools, and a huge jump on everybody else, and the poorest kids, well, you get the idea. I love the idea of updating the curriculum. I have a degree in English Literature and have always loved books, but for those who don't perhaps things that are more contemporary would be more interesting. Bill Bryson? I mean, come on? Why not? I hate academic snobbery, and I want to kill people when they say that no one is writing good books anymore (I'm looking at you, Oprah Winfrey, you stupid twunt). I only hope that the next president will have an interest in education (Or at least, an education) so we can start to change things here.

*steps down from soapbox*

Ahem. So yeah- good post.

badgerdaddy said...

Blimey, you have stirred a hornet's nest here... In a good way.

I guess this could affect me now The Daughter's in my life. I've already helped with homework, which was interesting...

Anything that gets Britain past the idea that 'thick is good' (a la Jade Goody) and ignorance is bliss is fine with me. However it's done.

Z said...

Yes, I agree. Some of the ideas of comprehensive education, which was brought in here some 35 years ago, were excellent, but the result has been to deny opportunities to poorer children from less academic backgrounds.

I hate academic snobbery too - there's an awful lot of thought that a book has to be so clever that it disappears up its own arsehole and unreadable to boot, for it to have any literary merit. But yes, Bill Bryson is a good example - he's funny, he's enjoyable, he's accessible but he actually writes well.

I don't like the reverse academic snobbery which frowns on classic literature, either. But you probably guessed that.

Z said...

BD, give you a year or'll probably be on the PTA!

Anonymous said...

"Twunt". What a good word, bartender. It's got connotations of its two components' metaphorical meanings, but without the misogynistic overtones. I like it a lot.

Monozygote said...

I've written such a long comment that I've decided to make it into another post!

You can say that again! I'm glad you did, I clearly need to know more about this.

heybartender said...

I'm not taking credit for "twunt." I believe I read it on Petite Anglaise, who got it from another blogger. Been using it a lot, though.
I don't really feel misogynistic when I use either of it's components, but I do like the puzzled looks I get for marrying them.

heybartender said...

z, I forgot to say that I also hate reverse academic snobbery as well. I hope that goes without saying. But i do think that some of the books in the cannon should be reserved for people with an AVID interest in literature.