School, ecole, scuola

5th December 1997 at 00:00
One day she was surfing the Net, the next she was in Italy comparing notes on nursery education with teachers from around Europe. Sarah Horrocks explains.

We were worried. The itinerary for our Italian visit told us we would be having school dinners every day. But a series of three-course meals at Il Quadrifoglio (the "Four Leaf Clover") nursery school in Fano allayed our fears - they were like night-time treats at the local osteria.

My headteacher and I, with two teachers from an ecole maternelle in Gueret, France, were visiting Fano, south of Rimini on the Adriatic coast, for the preliminary visit of a European Education Project, funded by the UK Central Bureau for Education Visits and Exchanges. For four days we were immersed in comparing and contrasting our schools and educational systems, noting variations that ranged from the insignificant (six-year-olds wearing bibs for school dinners) to differences in educational policy and philosophy.

Our project, a three-way exchange of children's work focusing on the theme of "celebrations", began six months ago after nights spent trawling the Internet for European nursery schools with Web sites. I feared I was in danger of becoming a "Nethead" when I made contact with a French school and an Italian school who were keen to begin an exchange. Many e-mails, faxes and phone calls later, we found ourselves face to face in Fano, an ancient Roman port known as the Citta dei Bambini because of its council's commitment to child welfare.

We spent several days observing activities in the nursery, filling in forms and having long discussions about educational theory in the council offices. There was a moment late on a dark autumn afternoon when I feared that the 14 teachers, pedagogisti (advisers), council officials and accompanying translators would never resolve their semantic and linguistic problems and decide on a title for the project. "Celebrations" had seemed straightforward until I began to deepen my knowledge of possible French and Italian translations. Celebrare has too many associations with rituals like mass and weddings, una festa is a party, but feste are religious festivals. Festeggiare seemed possible, but its French translation faire la fete seemed too frivolous.

On the third evening of our visit a meeting was held to present the project to parents. Each of the three schools showed a short video of children working. The video of the French nursery began a passionate debate between the Italian parents and educationists. Watching the French pupils being formally taught to read and write made them question their own system, where elementary schools still discourage the teaching of reading and writing in the scuola dell'infanzia. The French video showed five and six-year-olds involved in whole-class activities, sitting at desks developing writing skills (le graphisme) or sitting on the carpet and approaching the teacher, one by one, to dip their finger in a cup of water and form an "a" on the board. The Italian parents approved. "Why shouldn't our children be allowed to learn to read and write at this age," they asked. The pedagogista replied that it was too early, and talked about the importance of developing the child's imagination and creativity. Marie-France, the French teacher, seemed bemused as the controversy was translated. For her it is a legal requirement of the state curriculum that children can perform certain literacy skills by the end of their time in the ecole maternelle. I wondered what the parents and teachers in our partner schools would make of Rehana in the OFSTED video, Literacy Matters. Rehana is a nursery child who can identify the "f" and "sh" in "fish" and write them on a blackboard.

My head and I explained how we support literacy at the Triangle Nursery, in Brixton, by responding to and extending children's interest in reading and writing rather than through formal teaching. The teachers and parents seemed alarmed to see our children writing outside in a strong wind. The clip of Triangle pupils writing, as part of role play in an outdoor office area, pointed up differences with both our partner schools. Neither included an outdoor curriculum or emphasised contexts based on activities children encounter in the real world.

Ecole Maternelle Assolant follows a highly structured state programme of work focusing on writing skills, whilst Il Quadrifoglio bases its planning and projects on fantasy. Each school has its own entertainer who works with the teachers and the pedagogista to introduce projects based on fantasy characters. The imaginary character provides the stimulus for links with different curriculum areas. This term's character is Gedeone the Teddy Bear. Teddy is always sending messages and letters, but after his debut with the school's entertainer he remains elusive. It seemed a bit whimsical. Unlike the exchange project, which gave us a chance to reflect on your own practice and on how, as teachers, we remain products of a set of government regulations, teacher training and a prevailing philosophy whatever our personal approach.

Next summer the teachers from Fano and Gueret will visit Triangle Nursery. In the autumn the visit will be to Ecole Maternelle Assolant. The children are already fascinated by the growing communication between our schools, having seen videos and photographs of the Italian children and looked at their drawings on the Internet. They want to know every detail of their day. From now on the audience for our children's work and activities has widened to include the pupils and teachers of Il Quadrifoglio and Ecole Maternelle Assolant. Our initial contact was the result of a random Internet search, but the result has been real and rewarding relationships between our children, parents and staff.

Sarah Horrocks is deputy headteacher at Triangle Nursery School in Lambeth. She is the co-ordinating teacher for the European Education Project funded under Comenius Action 1 by the Central Bureau. Il Quadrifoglio Scuola dell'Infanzia web site: http:www.abanet.itquadrifoglio giornali.htm. Ecole Maternelle Assolant web site: http:www.marie-felletin.freducationecolesassolantaccueil.htm. Triangle Nursery web site:

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