The old school has become the new school

27th April 2001 at 01:00
Our school dates from the mid-19th century and has been on its present site since 1938. I regularly entertain elderly visitors who have returned from foreign parts for a final look at their childhood haunts. As we tour the building they are delighted to comment that nothing has changed, it just seems smaller. They say how grateful they are for their education and describe their fond memories of school despite stories of treatment by some teachers which, if replicated today, would incur the wrath of 100 child protection officers.

My visitors are on a nostalgia trip so I don't bother to explain how much schools have changed since their time, but our conversations lead me to wonder about the value of many changes especially when much of what was rejected has been returning under the guise of new ideas.

Primary teachers who were in post during the 1970s will remember that the advice we were given about classroom practice was mainly concerned with ditching everything that had gone before. Rarely did it relate to experience and seldom was there any attempt at a rationale. Much of it seems ridiculous now but then it was strongly supported by those who regarded themselves as experts.

How is this for a starter list? Do not use class lessons; do not teach or mark spelling; children must discover things for themselves; children must be allowed to work at their own pace; always follow children's interests; desks must always be in groups; do not chant multiplication tables, poetry or anything; calculators to be used from primary 3; blackboards are not required; no place for tests or any measurement of children's achievement.

Educational development for a new century is driven byinternational surveys which show children performing poorly against those from other rich countries. Television news tells us of a stunning development where children chant words and phrases during a reading lesson. It helps motivation and no doubt soon we will be told that rhythm and vocalisation are important tools for learning.

Researchers have discovered that seating children in groups is not as effective as rows and whole-class teaching has made a comeback. To justify its return it is now known as "interactive", and we are told that it involves a whole range of skills like questioning and children demonstrating solutions to the class. Well, whatever next?

Out of the dustbin have come school uniforms, programmes of work, spelling and homework. In England, research has shown the important contribution of expressive arts; so the Government has committed lots of cash. It is difficult not to be cynical about the experts and their research grants when the rest of us arrived at the same conclusions much earlier by reflecting on our experience.

It's time to trust teachers, to recognise the value of their experience and to help them develop their confidence so that they can refine classroom practice for themselves rather than have questionable solutions imposed on them from above.

Our building looks as if it is set for another 100 years. When present pupils return for their nostalgia trip they may wish to think that nothing has changed. Progress will have been made if the teachers they meet look on change as a positive step which encourages their skills and allows them to draw on the best of the past while being sensibly updated for the demands of the future.

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