Care to open your mind?

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
Ruth Kelly's plans for after-school hours could do with a bit more creative thinking. Bill Laar sets out his own modest proposal

Give teachers the merest chance and they will be out for your betterment.

The trouble is their perception of what is best for us does not always coincide with ours. There I was, agog at the proclamation of "Kelly hours" (or, more properly, "wrap-around care" as an administrator sternly reminded me) when I bumped into Paul Reast, a senior teacher, who is deeply involved in and committed to "extended school provision". No better person with whom to discuss the glorious possibilities of the project, I thought.

But his attentions were elsewhere. Before my wondering eyes he was restoring to something of its former grandeur an antique violin that had clearly known turbulent times and robust usage.

"It's a 'Maidstone'," he said in the deceptively casual way of teachers about to invite one to cross into unfamiliar terrain.

And so it was, with the violin gleaming between us, I heard of the Maidstone School Movement and temporarily forgot about "wrap-around care".

I learned that, through the better part of the 19th century, upper-class philanthropists strove to provide educational opportunity and enriched life chances for working-class people, through organisations called Mechanics'

Institutions. Their major emphasis was on literacy, but there was also a determined attempt to offer a more liberal education in the form of music and art courses.

Alongside them were Concerts for the People, and the encouragement of choral music, which led to the involvement of hundreds of thousands of adults in sight-singing lessons - a phenomenon which has led some music historians to describe the period as "the sight-singing century".

The extraordinary impact of the sight-singing classes and widely available cheap concerts led to the introduction of violin classes for adults. Again, the outcomes were spectacular. Hundreds of people would turn up at municipal halls on Saturday evenings (often having worked in factories, mills, mines and sweatshops all day) for lessons at a penny a time on cheap, mass-produced violins.

Although the popularity of adult sight-singing classes led to their introduction in primary schools in 1872, the violin teaching material was considered too difficult for young children. That is, until the advent of the remarkable T Mee Pattison, who persuaded his employers, JG Murdoch and Co, music publishers and instrument-makers, to promote violin instruction for schoolchildren by providing all that was required: teachers, violins and teaching materials for a single inexpensive price, payable in easy instalments.

The project was named The Maidstone Movement, in honour of the All Saints'

National school in Maidstone, Kent, the first institution to experiment with the group violin class approach. The Murdoch Co formed The Maidstone School Orchestra Association to disseminate the method. It was envisaged that "Music should occupy a place in the education of all children...

leading to better-offered minds, greater gracefulness of movement and more harmonious life generally".

It would be easy to underestimate the importance of the movement, which is now largely forgotten. But it would have existed in the context of a restricted and parsimonious curriculum doled out to largely disenfranchised pupils in an ethos shaped by "payment by results". It was dependent for funding on commercial generosity and the slender payments of the consumers.

Yet the movement flourished until the Second World War and, at the height of its popularity, almost half a million British pupils participated in Maidstone School Orchestra classes. It has even been suggested that its methodology influenced the Suzuki method.

Later, it struck me that it might not be overly fanciful to see in this remarkable initiative an early model for wrap-around care.

Today, of course, for all the controversy generated by last term's proposals, there is nothing new in the concept, as the Secretary of State herself has pointed out. Thousands of children are benefiting from cheap pre-school breakfasts and worthwhile post-school activities. And, as Ted Wragg reminds us, more than 50 years ago diverse and sophisticated educational programmes were available to entire communities in the Cambridgeshire village colleges.

But I remember, too, another side of the story. In the 1970s and 1980s the Inner London Education Authority provided free after-school care for primary children on an ambitious scale. The substantial funding was spent almost exclusively on supervisors, generally recruited from outside teaching and largely without professional qualifications. Where teachers, seeking to supplement their earnings, became involved in the programmes, there was evidence of purposeful and worthwhile activities. In other cases, the majority, I have vivid memories of boys endlessly battering footballs around school halls - often to the detriment of equipment and displays - while girls sheltered in alcoves, crouched over paper-sticking and colouring activities, and huddles of supervisors, clutching coffee mugs, looked on from the margins and counted down the time to six o'clock.

In that great authority, visionary in so many respects, there was little time or opportunity to appraise the value of that costly project or to consider how it might have been applied to better effect.

Now, a couple of decades later, whole-day care is destined to become a fact of life, whatever the arguments about the nature of a society whose economic stability seems increasingly dependent on parents' or carers'

readiness to barter more and more control of their children's care, welfare and education in exchange for the privilege of working longer and longer hours.

If that is to be the bargain then the quid pro quo must be a guarantee for children of the "excellence and enjoyment" in and from education, promised by the Government, but too often diluted by a disproportionate emphasis on the core curriculum - and a limiting version of it at that.

Bill Laar is an education consultant. Any thoughts? Write to

An extravagant vision for after-school care

I propose:

* that five primary schools in each of 10 representative local authorities should be selected to take part in an experiment to determine ideal after-school care;

* that a working party of educationists and parents should produce a blueprint for wrap-around provision to be implemented in the trial schools;

* that the experiment should take place over a two-year period, alongside the "normal" after-school provision in schools outside the trial area;

* that the cost of the project should be met from:

a) lottery funding, over which the Government now appears empowered to exercise more creative control;

b) a contribution (earmarked for sports, creative and expressive areas use) from the substantial sums due to be released for Olympic 2012 preparation; and

c) a possible contribution from the huge military savings - the "peace dividend" - brought about by the imminent pacification of Iraq;

* that provision in each trial school should incorporate certain prerequisites, for example:

a) water activities area, graduated in terms of challenge, offering a diversity of inventive and imaginary features;

b) woodland, meadow, marshland wild garden areas;

c) external areas, custom built and equipped for dance, gymnastics, drama, orienteering and team games;

d) a working model of the world, demonstrating quintessential features of individual countries;

e) comprehensively resourced areas indoors for activities, performance and skills training in music, drama, dance, art and design and technology;

f) an extensive library of information and communications technology provision together with the means to facilitate, where required, the completion of homework in comfortable environments;

* that qualified staff should work with children, ensuring they make the best use of all facilities in terms of learning, enjoyment, recreation and experience;

* that, at the conclusion of sessions, children share a balanced and nutritious meal;

* that a government-funded research project should determine the extent to which attainment and standards are raised as a consequence of the trial.

I shared a draft of this modest proposal for "Kelly hours" with a policy-maker and a politician, who dismissed it as wildly extravagant, not at all modest, and "smacking of gadding about".

Chastened, I put the proposal aside. Then, recently, I watched children make a presentation explaining how poverty was to become history and a great continent was to be saved from dying. Fired by politicians and popular entertainers, they were convinced it would happen.

Emboldened by them I take out the proposal again and suddenly it seems already on the way: after-school care is named after a rising star of the political firmament; money seems no object these days; and parents, ardent for what is best for their children, will surely back it all the way.

Maybe all that is needed is a slogan. How about: "Remember Maidstone and let Kelly's hour flower."

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