Yojana Sharma reports
Lithuania, on the south-east shore of the Baltic Sea, may not be an obvious place for teachers from England to visit when studying best practice abroad. So when the British Council organised a week-long trip in February for a group of 13 early years teachers from Leicester, many of them were surprised. They had expected to go to Scandinavia.
But puzzlement turned to admiration. "It was life-changing, and professionally inspiring," says Hema Patel, foundation stage co-ordinator at Slater primary. The visitors found the kindergartens calmer and more focused than pre-schools back home, even though there were fewer resources.
"As soon as you enter their classroom it feels earthy and genuine," says Marilyn Bowles, foundation stage teacher at Willowbrook primary. "They use a lot of natural resources, while in the UK it's all bright plastic."
The ratio of adults to children is high in the schools the teachers visited in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. No class had more than 20 children, aged from three to six, looked after by two trained teachers and a classroom assistant. Lithuanian children appeared to be more resourceful and independent than English children of the same age. And they seemed to enjoy a more "creative" environment, which helped them to focus on tasks. "They have such interesting activities to concentrate on," says Ms Bowles. "No one is bored just colouring in."
The Lithuanian children do not change class each year, but stay in a mixed-age group for two or three years, almost as a family unit, until they go on to primary school at age six or seven. Their teachers believe this fosters a sense of community, sharing and caring for each other.
The Leicester teachers felt young children in England appear less inclined to share. "There, they're part of a community that looks after each other," says Jo Elks, early years adviser for Leicester City education authority, who led the group.
In a country that until 1991 had been a republic of the Soviet Union for more than 50 years, freedom is prized. This feeds through to the way Lithuanian kindergarten teachers choose who they want to look after each class. Some even use psychometric tests to ensure staff are well matched.
In each kindergarten there are typically 60 children, divided into three classes. Each class has its own curriculum, devised by its teaching team.
Some base their teaching on Montessori principles, others incorporate Steiner methods or use the traditional Lithuanian curriculum, based on folk culture, all in the same school. The parents choose which class they feel is most suited to their child. Having more than one person in charge prevents reliance on the influence of a single teacher.
There are few books, so the focus is on storytelling, role play, music and drama. Though reading and writing are not taught, activities develop children's fine motor skills, social skills and, in particular, concentration, to prepare them for the traditional chalk-and-talk teaching that takes place in primary schools. Children of the same age in the UK have shorter concentration spans, Ms Bowles says.
As for the development of fine motor skills, the group noted differences here, too. "Instead of using large paint brushes and large pots of paint as we do, children use finer brushes and small pots of paint," says Ms Elks.
"They're concentrating more on dexterity, while we're immediately putting a pencil into children's hands," Ms Patel adds. Other activities, such as clay work, strengthen the children's hands, so that they will be able to hold a pencil for a long time at primary school.
Members of the group have been meeting informally to discuss how to incorporate some of the Lithuanian practice in their classrooms. Ms Bowles says the trip has given her more confidence to challenge those who wanted to do things "by the book" in the UK to try out more "creative" activities.
But the most important thing was the way the trip expanded the group's horizons. The visit was funded by the Department for Education and Skills as part of its Teachers' International Professional Development programme. The scheme is administered by the British Council and enables primary and secondary teachers, applying through their local education authority, to observe best practice in other countries.
Some 130 groups visits were organised last year and a similar number will be funded this year. In the past 12 months teachers have visited the acceding EU countries of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Latvia, as well as Lithuania.
Ms Bowles sums it up: "We went to Lithuania thinking we were the free going to a former communist country, but there we felt they were the free and we were returning to a land of restrictions."
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Pupils are learning about the new member states by collaborating in creative projects with support from the EU's Comenius project.
Leadgate junior school near Consett, Co. Durham, linked up with Norway, Greece, Hungary and Poland on a "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" project.
Seven to11-year-olds have been looking at the histories of their home towns and of their partners' and have made a video to share with each other.
"It has certainly heightened awareness. Through the project these countries have become more real to them," says Jane Cain, head of Leadgate. Teachers were able to travel to Hungary and Poland to set up the partnership with Comenius funding.
Ideas for projects can be found at European Schoolnet (www.eun.org), set up by the education ministries of 26 countries, which also helps schools find partners (comenius.eun.org), as does the DfES-funded Global Gateway (www.globalgateway.org.uk).