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Imagine no fixed curriculum...

... it's easy if you try, says Colin Richards, who reflects on the glory days of the innovative Prestolee Elementary school.

Imagine a school with rose gardens, orchards, playing fountains and flower-clad buildings. Imagine one which is "open all hours" every day of the week. Imagine a school day in which the children negotiate their own curriculum and engage in peer-group learning within the limits of a flexible educational programme.

Imagine a school which is "a workshop for young and old; a den of hobbies and indoor games; a studio for drawing, painting and plastics; a hall for song and dance; a picture gallery; a club; a place for parties; an orchard; a bathing place; a fair garden; an educational shop window; a dining place; a laundry; a cleansing department" and so much more.

This is not an imaginary school but Prestolee Elementary, a "council school" in a poor industrial village in Lancashire. The pen-picture describes the school as it was during the 1930s and 1940s.

Prestolee was inspired by the beliefs and actions of one man - EF "Teddy" O'Neill, headteacher from 1918 to 1963. As far as I know the school never had a mission statement, a school development plan, or a set of targets.

Its work was, however, informed by a set of beliefs - in self-motivation, originality, enquiry, initiative and persistence.

These were qualities to be fostered in children by teachers providing a rich range of opportunities and doing things with rather than for them.

Teddy believed that to do this teachers had to be research workers with "fingers in every pie; never stuck for ideas, never lacking resource", as one admirer put it. It was a bold vision totally out of synch with the predominant elementary school ethos of the time.

His beliefs were succinctly captured in his constantly changing "texts" displayed around the school.

Here are my favourites: "Real poverty is lack of imagination." "Let teachers be spacious." "It's geese that need stuffing - not children".

"Impossible is the slogan of a fool". "If it's good for the children of those who can pay, it is good for the children of those who cannot." And lastly: "Let teachers be human. They are not parrots - let them come off their perches. They should adventure with the children, making things, thinking things out, doing things all around the school."

But how did it work in practice? We know because the school was inspected, and because a sympathetic observer, Gerald Holmes, wrote about it in The Idiot Teacher, an educational classic first published in 1952.

The school had a programme of work including not just the "primaries" (of English and arithmetic) but areas such as geology, astronomy, economics, citizenship, domestic work, the arts and the humanities.

There was an advertised regular cycle of lessons where one specific lesson was given daily to each class upon one or other of these areas. The aim was to stimulate and amplify children's interest in some topical or cultural matter so as to lead on to further research (but only if a child wanted to) in and out of the school building. The length, format and style of each daily lesson varied from teacher to teacher and subject to subject.

After "the lesson" each day children had to engage in "the primaries" - following a definite programme but at their own rate. They had to accomplish a minimum amount of primary work but they could do more.

Following that, the remainder of the school day was at the children's disposal to work individually or co-operatively on their own enquiries and activities, drawing on the help of their own and other teachers and using the school's extraordinary range of facilities.

Holmes observed that "having no rigid timetable, O'Neill's children do not divide their lives into work and play. They are actively living all the day. They come early and they leave when they are shut out".

The case of Prestolee should encourage us to re-examine our basic beliefs about how children learn, about what they should learn, and how teachers should facilitate that learning.

In particular it, should encourage us to imagine.

Colin Richards is professor of education at St Martin's College, Lancaster

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