Co-operation for happiness

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Pam Cooley visits a school based on Froebel principles and sorts out the misunderstandings that surround his philosophy

Many people have never heard of Friedrich Froebel. To some he was one of those odd educators who dreamed up alternative, suspiciously progressive ways of teaching children who don't fit in at ordinary schools - all play and no work. others make the mistake of confusing Froebel's work with Montessori methods for teaching very young children.

A few teachers, particularly those who specialised in infant and primary education, know better. They will have touched, albeit briefly, on Froebel's philosophy and work as a pioneer in the study of child development. He was the founder of the kindergarten movement, believing that young children learn through creative and constructive play, exploration and firsthand experience. His ideas gradually gained acceptance in this country in the first half of this century. While they are generally acknowledged as underpinning much good primary practice, his philosophy has become diluted, his ideas misunderstood.

Ibstock Place, the Froebel School in Roehampton, south-west London, is a mixed independent day school. It started as a kindergarten more than 100 years ago and now has nearly 600 pupils in an age range from pre-school to GCSE at 16. To retain a small-school ambience the kindergarten, junior and senior departments have separate houses set in the woods, orchards and lawns of a six-acre site.

Franciska Bayliss, headteacher of Ibstock Place, explains: "Froebelians have a philosophy based on intellectual understanding of child development and good practice, not a method. The quality of the teaching is absolutely fundamental to the way we work. Our teachers are highly qualified. It requires a huge amount of skill to operate a structured system that has within it the maximum flexibility to nurture both creative potential and academic capabilities. "

Mrs Bayliss and several of the senior staff at Ibstock trained at the nearby Froebel Institute, now incorporated into the Roehampton Institute which, while providing excellent BEd and PGCE courses, no longer offers the original Froebel course they followed. However, in the third year of the Froebel Institute's early childhood MA course, students, by no means all of them teachers, are offered an optional module which can lead to a National Froebel Foundation Award.

The misconception that Montessori methods, involving specially designed equipment, are connected with Froebel may be because Froebel born in Germany in 1782, designed a series of solid geometric shapes (Froebel's "gifts") which had symbolic significance as well as a practical role in teaching the very young. A couple of these sets are respectfully displayed in a glass cabinet, but no special equipment is used at Ibstock Place.

A key element in Froebel philosophy is that for a child to be secure and happy, the conflicts arising between individual activity and group interests must be reconciled. From the start, in Priestman House, the beautifully equipped nursery and kindergarten, the curriculum is planned daily to create a situation in which individual abilities, social confidence and emotional growth may develop naturally in harmony with group play, music and singing.

The sounding and forming of letters and numbers in the nursery prepares many children to learn to read within the first three months of making the smooth move to a lower kindergarten class (reception). But there is no pushing to establish reading. With the emphasis still on first-hand experience and discovery in a widening area of activities, projects all aim towards creating a broad base in maths and English.

Andrea Johnson began her career teaching with two years in a state infants' school in her native Northampton. After taking a degree in psychology and human biology, she became interested in Froebel's work during her PGCE course. "The first time I came to Ibstock I was struck by how colourful it was and the really welcoming atmosphere." Now teaching five-year-olds in a lower kindergarten class, she says: "It's a lovely place to work. It has put into place all sorts of practices that I was already doing in my classroom and brought them all together."

Joanna Webbern, head of Priestman House, and indeed every member of the staff who has taught in the maintained sector, insist that there should not be a fundamental difference between best classroom practice in a state school and Ibstock Place. But, they would surely agree that having just 24 children in a class, the support of a full-time qualified nursery assistant, the best equipment available and such enviable surroundings are advantages.

As an independent school, Ibstock is able to take from the national curriculum those strands which it considers beneficial and educationally sound. In upper kindergarten (Year 1) children start to learn French which, like music and PE, is taught by specialists. In the transition classes (Year 2), pupils take standard assessment tasks.

Froebel's radical belief in the role of women in education and his setting up of a women's training college, brought him into conflict with the authorities. His stress on the importance of the mother and family life is reflected in the close links fostered at Ibstock between home and school. Anne-Louise de Buriane, head of Macleod House, the junior school, says: "We don't always do things the way parents perceive them. For example, we are asked why children are not doing pages and pages of sums and we have to explain that sums need to be related to a problem they are trying to solve, to other investigations they happen to be doing."

A teacher in the Inner London Education Authority throughout the stormy 1960s, Mrs de Buriane says: "It drives me to distraction when people think the children can do what they like here, that we don't have any discipline. We don't have many rules but implicit in those we do have is the expectation that pupils behave civilly and courteously to each other and are respectful to the adults they come into contact with and, of course, we must be respectful to the children.

"We don't let anybody feel bad because they are not good at certain subjects. They are never made to feel that they are not achievers and they are very supportive of each other."

In the junior and senior years project work is still a key element. Week-long residential field trips that link humanities and science are built into the timetable. Every two years, 15-year-olds are invited to raise their own funds for a month-long subject-based trip. Next year it will be to Tanzania to help build classrooms for a school.

Together with art, dance and drama, Ibstock has a vibrant musical tradition. The children learn the recorder from a very young age and specialist tuition is provided for a variety of chosen instruments. The school orchestra, chamber ensembles, and choir perform frequently in public. Each year a major drama production is staged.

The Froebel ethos, allowing a child to enjoy learning, to grow up physically, emotionally, and intellectually fulfilled, begins when a four-year-old comes to the Ibstock nursery. It is cherished throughout the upper school until pupils leave at 16 to take up sixth-form places in other schools with a very satisfactory clutch of GCSEs.

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