Everyone needs time off from the system

7th May 2004 at 01:00
So parents are taking their children out of school for ever longer holidays, often to places where they have their roots. Why the outcry? These visits offer marvellous educational opportunities, at no expense to the school. We shouldn't be fining parents and agonising about how the "truants" will catch up? We should be asking:

* What can the children learn about the local language, customs, religions, architecture and food?

* What complementary project can the holiday-learner be set?

* What free resources - photographs, pieces of writing, video footage, publications - can he or she collect?

* What presentation can they make on their return that will enable the class to share their experience?

Such questions are not asked because, in classrooms, "lock step" reigns, using (to borrow Ted Wragg's vivid phrase) weapons of mass instruction and prohibiting the exploitation of individual experiences. If it were not so important to move up the league tables, if we were not so obsessed with success in tests, we might consider paying the parents rather than fining them.

Look in any dictionary: "personalised" is a synonym for "individualised".

With a more flexible approach to teaching, the learning experience of each individual can be extended to all members of the class, helping to nurture the full development - mental, physical and spiritual - denied them by the current system.

Politicians have introduced a plethora of nationally imposed initiatives and legal requirements in an attempt to "tidy" education, with students neatly labelled and packaged. But all they have really done is tinker with the system, restricting teachers' ability to respond to individual needs, failing to take advantage of advances in technology and psychological research, and ignoring the new skills required of today's workforce.

Such tinkering is not new. In 1911, Edmond Holmes, the chief inspector of elementary schools, noted that "it was inevitable that in his endeavour to adapt his teaching to the type of question which his experience of the yearly examination led him to expect, (the teacher) should gradually deliver himself, mind and soul into the hands of the officials at Whitehall who framed the yearly syllabus, and the officials in the various districts who examined it".

His comments on the effects of this regime on the pupils were no less damning: "What the department did to the teacher, it compelled him to do to the child... The teacher who, in response to the deadly pressure of a cast-iron system, has become a creature of habit, cannot carry out his instructions except by making his pupils as helpless and as puppet-like as himself."

Is history repeating itself?

Rachel Gibbons is a retired maths teacher. She lives in London

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