Learning to talk it all through
"There are so many life skills involved," says Julia Duncan, parent of two children at Courthill first school in Parkstone, one of the 40 Dorset primary schools involved in the independent learning project. "They have to plan something, actually carry out the task and then stand up in front of 29 other children and explain what they've been doing. Many adults would find this difficult."
Ro Norris, who teaches a Year 3 class at Courthill, says: "They carry the skills they learn - co-operative working, independence, ability to articulate - into all their work." These children use a High Scope framework, known as "plan, do, review", for their project work during the first hour-and-a-half of each school day.
Last term, most chose to focus on natural history or science. After making a careful plan, they set to work. Seven-year-old Sam chose to study jungle animals, and was eager to show his model elephant with a trunk that really squirts water. "My dad helped me with the super glue, but I worked the rest out myself," he explains. In another corner, Joshua is making an exquisite collage - a jungle scene in bright tissue paper, all his own idea.
During the last 20 minutes of the session the children sit in a circle and take turns to show and talk about their work. Jason confidently outlines his aeroplane project: an information booklet, the history of the Wright brothers and a model of an aeroplane with propellers that move. The other children question him about the scale of the model. "I want to extend something which someone said earlier," interjects seven-year-old Anton. There is criticism of the style of the booklet but Jason takes it all in his stride.
An improvement in speaking and listening skills is one of the main changes Courthill staff have noticed since they started using High Scope four years ago. Visiting inspectors have commented on the exceptional quality of the pupils' language skills, with several children working at level 4 (the average for an 11-year-old) in spoken English. Increased motivation and confidence are other benefits.
At Christchurch infants school, staff say pupils' behaviour and attitudes towards their work have greatly improved since the approach was introduced three years ago. Wendy Pickering, the headteacher, says: "It helps children to feel they have some control over what happens in school. They're willing to listen to the teacher because they don't have to listen to her all the time." She believes that the opportunity to choose also eases the transition from playgroup to school, a serious concern for teachers as all Dorset children start school at four.
At Christchurch, the reception teachers gradually extend the range of activities and equipment on offer in the independent learning sessions. The aim is that children will soon start to take on tasks and projects of their own. Teachers are on hand to assist or extend a pupil's work if necessary.
But staff are also freer to assess and observe."They can pick up on what children have learned and what they need," says Wendy Pickering, who adds that pupils with special needs can be identified more quickly under the independent learning scheme.
The programme's flexibility makes it easier to cater for the wide ability range at the school; while some of the children come from professional backgrounds, others are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Pupils with behavioural difficulties often produce their best work in independent learning time.
But Mrs Pickering is well aware of the pitfalls. "If it becomes too rigid it won't reflect the children's needs," she says. And everyone - staff, welfare assistants and parents - has to understand the philosophy behind it, otherwise it could degenerate into unco-ordinated play sessions. Preparation is essential; working areas must be changed or expanded to keep pace with the children's interests and the classroom area has to be immaculately organised, so that pupils can help themselves to the equipment they need. They must also be trained to use the materials and she suggests that individual schools must adapt the method to suit themselves.
Above all, Shirley Billington, a Dorset primary inspector, stresses the need for high-quality interaction between pupils and teacher. "It's not a time to hear pupils read," she says. "It's a time to get involved in what they're doing - an opportunity to move learning forward."