Book Review - An animated tale for progressive thinkers

26th February 2010 at 00:00

Creating Tomorrow's Schools Today

By Richard Gerver. Published by Continuum

"How do we turn our school into Disneyland?" It's a question that would make a traditionalist harrumph. But that is what Richard Gerver asked staff when he took over as headteacher of Grange Primary in Derbyshire, and it is the question at the heart of his bold new book on how to transform schools.

The slim volume is part manifesto, part how-to guide. In the first half Mr Gerver sets out his vision, exploring why schools can fail to capture children's interests.

Where some would moan about the short attention spans of the digital generation, he is instead excited by pupils' ability to multi-task and the speed at which they process information.

In one example he describes watching his daughter, an average teenager, as she plays a hospital-management game on a PC while watching a BBC programme.

"Not satisfied with running the Health Service and absorbing the pros and cons of life for a child in care being played out on TV, she is also having a video MSN conversation with her grandma in Spain," he writes, adding that she's also texting a friend, and listening to a new album.

"The real tragedy is that we are underestimating the potential of our young and of what they know and do," he writes.

Young people are more capable than they have ever been, and their ability to communicate is neither better, nor worse, than in the past - "just different". Rather than complaining about the influence of brands and advertisers, teachers should be learning from their tricks, he argues.

Mr Gerver tackles several key education debates speedily and head-on, including the battle between skills and knowledge.

He says that pupils obviously need both, then explains why schools might find it better to look at information as skills, knowledge or rules (the framework developed by Jens Rasmussen in Denmark).

At a time when progressive proposals to improve the primary curriculum are under threat, Mr Gerver calls for more creative, risky, pupil-led and cross-curricular teaching, which makes good use of modern media.

If the first half of this book had been published in isolation, some might have dismissed his ideas as fanciful, or asked how schools could make them a reality given the pressures of targets and inspections.

But in the second part, Mr Gerver explores how he and other teachers introduced such changes at Grange Primary. This section includes a sample timetable and detailed descriptions of the school's "nurture room" and "university" (Grange, like several other successful primaries in recent years, has made strong use of the Opening Minds curriculum from the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce).

Like many heads, Mr Gerver, who has worked as a government adviser, is disturbed by the effect that England's high-stake testing culture has had on pupils. He is also concerned that politicians "would rather return to the certainties of the past than explore the possibilities of the future".

But he argues that heads should not use league tables and the national curriculum as an excuse for inaction, noting that too few schools have taken advantage of the powers to innovate offered by the Government. "I believe that education is perhaps more guilty than most at trying to stick for fear of going bust," he writes.

Infectiously optimistic, this book will be heartening for those who believe schools must evolve, and will raise uncomfortable questions for those who want to turn back the clock on the primary curriculum.

It may be accessible, and it may take inspiration from Disney, but Mickey Mouse this ain't.

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