Give it some welly
Tired of teaching to the test? Disillusioned with formal learning? Take a look at a scheme that puts practical and social skills first yet still helps primary children learn to read. Open Future, funded by the Helen Hamlyn Trust, works across the curriculum and includes gardening, cooking, filming and philosophy.
A project that began as Grow It, Cook It has now added Film It and Ask It. It encourages pupils to co-operate and communicate whether they are planting onions or filming each other cooking potatoes.
At first sight, it may look like a return to the topic work beloved of some 1970s primaries, but Philip Hunt, headteacher of Petersgate Infant School in Clanfield near Petersfield in Hampshire, says this is different. "It is more structured and rigorous. The timetable is carefully planned and we are always looking for opportunities to build in literacy and numeracy."
Petersgate is one of 10 schools in the South of England in the pilot project and has just become a hub school, responsible for helping others who are embarking on it. Ten more schools in the North are also involved and the trust hopes the programme will roll out nationally by 2010 once it has established which elements are sustainable and successful.
On a damp, cold, winter afternoon, Petersgate, which has seven teachers, eight teaching assistants and 160 pupils aged between four and seven, is humming. A group is donning hats and coats to head out to the garden to plant bulbs while another is just coming in from outside after a look at a fire engine parked outside the front door: the project promotes links with the community.
Inside, three six-year-olds are editing a film on a computer with the help of Angela Holley, their teacher. They play a video clip of pupils at a neighbouring school asking them questions, and then edit their replies.
Year 1 and Year 2 groups are sitting in circles for a philosophy lesson. In the middle of the circle is a boot, to which they must ask questions: "Why is it muddy?" "Who has worn it?" "Where was the boot made?" Then they vote on the question they want to talk about. Already they are beginning to grasp that they must listen to each other and stick up their thumbs if they want to speak. It all fits well with the Government emphasis on speaking and listening.
Petersgate started Open Future three years ago and philosophy or Ask It is the latest addition. All the strands are supported by an outside body: gardening by the Royal Horticultural Society, cooking by the Royal Society of Arts through its Focus on Food campaign, film by a webfilm designer and philosophy by Sapere (Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education).
The partner organisations provide support and training. An RHS gardening expert and a Focus on Food chef visit the school and Sapere is training teachers, including the head, to teach philosophy.
Philip says the programme teaches the skills in the national curriculum. Open Future does not yet form the whole curriculum at Petersgate, though he hopes that it will. The school does elements of the literacy and numeracy strategies. It also teaches the Jolly Phonics reading scheme, fairly intensively in reception and throughout the school to children who struggle with reading.
As Philip says: "Some things you have to sit down and learn."