A fair crack of the whip

Kevin Berry finds out how the new school-based training arrangements can help primary specialists try out new ideas

So, why is my teddy bear in a toy museum?" " 'cos it's old . . . we'll get you a new one" - " 'cos it's broken and worn out" - "it's in a case, so you don't touch it."

Sharp observations and reactions from reception children presented with a teddy bear in a glass case and a student teacher playing the role of a little girl looking for her old teddy, the teddy in the case. Janet Liddle was slipping into different roles, the girl, a museum guide with a clipboard, and back to a teacher. It was refreshing, worthwhile role-play with a deal of learning taking place and tons of value placed on whatever the children were saying.

"I told them beforehand that I was going to play two roles. When I had a badge on, and a clipboard, I wasn't a teacher. They understood and went along with it."

Janet was one of eight third-year students from The University College of St Martin, in Cumbria, who were at a nearby primary school for two days of intensive history teaching. Two or three students in each of three classrooms were working through a series of history activities that would normally be spread over a half-term or more. The students are all history "majors" and they will, with a fair wind and good navigation, become history curriculum leaders.

Their two-day placement, at St Mark's Nantland C of E Primary just outside Kendal, carries less pressure than a teaching practice and gives them some blessed freedom to try things out, to take measured risks with a reasonable safety net. The brief is to have a go at something you haven't tried before. If something doesn't quite happen as planned it is not the end of the world. Fellow students are there to carry some of the weight and the class teacher can support, help with techniques and supply a shop-floor assessment. Viz Judith Mattocks who reassured students with one activity, some drama inspired from researching the life of Anne Frank. "They thought it hadn't worked because of the noise level, but it had. The questions the children were asking were amazing, they had taken in so much. I was surprised," she says who.

The word "focused" littered every response to my questioning. The students have what they regard as a priceless opportunity to see how their history teaching develops, how one session fits into the next. They can see what the children take in, more than they would if distracted by other subjects, and the children looked to be having a good and useful time.

Their ideas were sound and sensible, not focused with eye-catching glamour but high on interest and purpose and they were often the results of three focused minds, that word again, rather than once. Everything was discussed well beforehand with the class teacher for half a day. The ideas, activities, learning objectives, and resources were all collected together in a resource pack and the school gets a copy - and, believe me, they are worth having.

After break the reception tinies met Anna Hall from the local Museum Service, who brought in boxes of toys, some obviously old and some from the recent past. She deliberately used cotton gloves for the more delicate dolls and talked about the materials used to make toys.

"So children, where does wood come from?" "Outside!" said one button-bright boy, pointing to a line of trees.

The children had already had a visit from a parent who had brought in an old tea set and they were aware of "age" words, the language of chronology, and "substance" words. Playtime with the more robust of Mrs Hall's toys was best described as "brill" and set me wondering just why it is that young children can grab a strange toy, assess its possibilities and start playing with it almost immediately - surely there's a Phd research project there!

Terry Caygill, in the middle of Year 4's Egypt activities, said: "It's a chance to watch other people and ask other people what they think of you, getting feedback from your colleagues and a teacher."

Jane Nattrass agreed and shared an observation from one of the children: "When I was listening to the children's newspaper reports (of the Pharaoh's funeral and intended for an Egyptian newspaper) I noticed Eleanor hadn't put in anything about the mummification process. I asked her why and she said, 'I think the Egyptians would have known all about it, so there's no point me putting it in, is there?'."

There was a purposeful calm in their classroom and a noticeable lack of anxiety. Children's thinking is often missed when the pace is governed by concern over grading; moments of sound insight and clear reasoning are lost and that is particularly important with history - and isn't history the chief source for those embarrassing misunderstandings we insist on calling schoolboy howlers?

Hilary Cooper, the students' education lecturer, does not claim that her college's school placement format is a unique idea but she is justly pleased with it. "The taught sessions in college, the work in schools, the assessment are an integrated whole . . . it's not that we have work in college and school which is unrelated and separate. It's something that we're all being asked to build into our courses. The students have a chance to try things out, and that's very important in becoming a creative, thinking teacher."

The students are now back at college assessing the children's work, and working out a way to record it. Each student then has to identify an issue, a concern from the school placement, chair a discussion with colleagues and the teachers from their placement school, and then sum up.

They are next in school in June for some further two-day sessions, when an infant and a junior specialist will be paired and a day spent in each area.

Wow! . . . I was teaching for four years before my request to spend a day in an infant classroom was granted, and then I got some very strange looks!

Kevin Barry is a former primary history specialist in Yorkshire

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