Feels real

13th July 2001 at 01:00
In the second of four articles, Jane Branson prepares for life in her newly built school and realises that everything will be right when it feels right

A moment in the corridor with a Year 1 child. Child: "Excuse me, will you come to this toilet with me, please?" Teacher: "Er.. OK.. why do you want me to do that?"

Child: "Because I haven't been in this toilet before."

For a group of secondary school teachers in limbo until their new school is built, this kind of moment has become precious. An amusing anecdote, yes. But also a reminder of what education is all about: listening to individuals; guiding children through new experiences; taking account of what they need now, as well as what they'll need in the future.

Although I'm based in a primary school until September, when Peacehaven community school opens and when I take up my new job there as head of English, there is still a yawning absence in my working life. Children walk through my life; they are not part of it at present. I am in loco parentis no more. I miss teaching. In the meantime, I am making the most of every minute of this precious time. The overtly practical - drafting my budget, inspecting books, attending national literacy strategy days - is balanced by the philosophical.

Like thousands of our fellow professionals, the four-member foundation team at Peacehaven wants to make a difference, and we are aware of the rare privilege we have in the expectations of the community and our students. This is, after all, the first secondary school Peacehaven has ever had.

Some of it has been easier than we imagined. Interactive whiteboard technology and a website will turn an ICT nightmare into a heavenly vision of integrated teacher planning, classwork, homework, parental liaison and administration. Lessons taught via the whiteboard can be saved immediately to the curriculum space on the website, which students will be able to access later when they're doing homework, or referred to at the touch of a screen for recapping in the following lesson.

Discussion of tutor times also raised thorny questions about how best to support children pastorally and academically. Most schools require tutors to be disciplinarian and counsellor. But our mentoring system will allow each child regular one-to-one time with a mentor to discuss learning, assessments and feelings on how school is going. The mentor will have up-to-date, wide-ranging information (via the student's personal bit of webspace) about all aspects of the child's progress. The aim is to create an opportunity for feedback about learning and other issues, and to make time for students to reflect and know how to move on.

I can think of many times in my career when I've listened to plaintive and relevant questions from my students along the lines of, "How will this help me in my life?" or "I don't like poetry." And I've replied, like some Victorian schoolmistress, "You need it to pass exams." I would smile as I said it, sugar to sweeten a bitter pill. But we need to remember our children's daily needs. We are often so busy guarding the future for young people that we find ourselves irked by their tendency to live in the "now", their addiction to immediacy. Surely, the "now" should be just as important as the "then"?

As a foundation team, we are bored with league tables and how they make us feel about our jobs. We want to support the growth of our students, nurturing independent learning, open-mindedness and the ability to work in teams. Most importantly, we want to develop the language of feedback, so progress and performance can be identified and celebrated. We want to learn together. Written down, it sounds so idealistic. Yet learning is the most all-encompassing of unifying human forces.

So, how will we know when we're on the way to the school we want? A Year 2 girl pointed us in the right direction the other day. She was looking at a "Where's Wally?" poster on the wall. I said: "So where is Wally?" She looked up and gave a smile. "It's easy," she said. I looked at the rows of people, all looking a little bit like Wally, with bobble hats of just the wrong shade. I frowned. She smiled again and shook her head. "No, don't look," she giggled. "You feel." She grinned, running her finger over the poster and revealing Wally's whereabouts. "He sticks out," she told me, walking off, rightly proud of herself. How will we know that we're a person-centred organisation that supports the learning of everyone associated with us? Easy - we'll feel it.

Jane Branson thanks her colleagues, especially Andrew Wright, for help with this article. Her next diary will appear in September. Peacehaven community school in East Sussex is due to open this September with 180 Year 7 pupils.

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