In spite of the National Curriculum
A young advisory teacher friend of mine recently visited a primary school in which the classrooms were very formally organised, with all of the children sitting in rows facing the blackboard. She asked the head about this and was told that this was her policy for the school. My friend saw no problem with that, but then the head added: "I think Chris Woodhead would approve."
Now I cannot speak for the personal preferences of the Chief Inspector of Schools but I feel confident that is not within his remit either to approve or disapprove of the way that classroom furniture is arranged. The brief of the Office for Standards in Education is to do with evidence of performance; its inspection handbook clearly says, "The choice of teaching methods and organisational strategies is a matter for the school and the teacher's discretion."
In fact, one of the most important things that an inspector has to learn is to abandon personal baggage about what styles of pedagogy and organisation he or she prefers, and to look instead for the quality of pupils' learning. They do not always find this easy. An inspector who has been a successful and respected head, for example, has to learn not to go into a school making subconscious value judgments based on the thought, "Well, this is not at all like my school is it?" At the same time, the headteacher might be forgiven her assumption. Although the Chief Inspector of Schools has never told teachers to rearrange their furniture, he does often say things that imply preference for a certain formality of style. There is evidence that he places much importance on an externally defined body of knowledge that has to be transmitted from teacher to pupil.
So successful have the media been in linking the Chief Inspector with political attempts to bash the trendies, that heads and teachers may feel that to gain the approval of their visiting OFSTED teams, they must eschew anything that looks too progressive. It is not so much that they start rearranging the furniture (though some undoubtedly do) but that teachers, as an inspection looms, start to opt for "safer" textbook- and desk-based work, and to draw in their groups from the ponds, libraries, science areas and flower beds where they are normally to be found.
There is, in fact, plenty of evidence not only that OFSTED accepts many styles and organisational methods, but that the Chief Inspector himself has personally praised schools with a wide range of philosophical and organisational approaches. And why should he not, given that it is results that count? (The Chief Inspector visits about two schools a week, often in response to invitations. So write to him today.) In this climate, what is needed, perhaps, is a firm statement of belief by heads of schools which are not only true to a child-centred ideology, but which have also had good reports from Ofsted. This is certainly the view of Betty Kerr of Crawley Ridge Junior, one of the schools praised in the Chief Inspector's annual report. She wrote to tell me of her "supreme gratification that we have maintained our philosophy in spite of the national curriculum".
Her statement to her parents starts with the words, "Our school has a deep conviction that the highest standards of learning are achieved by children who have rich experiences of the world around them and who are encouraged to take increased responsibility for their learning."
Her letter to me speaks of schools which, like hers, "by example, reiterate not only that Plowden lives, but actually produces the most effective learning and highest standards in the country".
Mrs Kerr suspects that the heads of many of the primary schools on OFSTED's roll of honour would agree with her, and she reeled off the names of the ones she knew, including Barnby Dun Primary in Doncaster. Julie Clift, the head there, agreed that, "If they don't have responsibility for their learning, then they don't have ownership of it."
In both of these schools the visitor finds children working relatively unsupervised in and outside the building, individually and in different kinds of groupings. Of course there are whole class lessons too - no good school has ever done without them. In overall style, though, neither could be further from the image of the formal, textbook and blackboard dominated classroom.
If they, or other primary heads need further assurance, then let them take a closer look at the OFSTED Handbook. Under "Attitudes, Behaviour and Personal Development", for example, inspectors are told to judge whether pupils "show interest in their work and are able to sustain concentration and develop their capacity for personal study". It seems to me that no school can provide good evidence for this unless it gives its pupils lots of opportunities to work things out for themselves, individually and in groups, in a context carefully planned by the teacher. Sitting in rows listening to the teacher will simply not do this particular trick.
At the same time, Betty Kerr may underestimate the extent to which the idealism that drove us in the Sixties has been given purpose and focus in recent years by the twin emphases on planning and good management. What characterises a school such as Crawley Ridge is not just its "openness" but that everything it does is carefully planned and arises from an agreed, whole-school philosophy.
In the past, many primary schools were loose federations of classrooms which were run in a variety of ways. The hallmark of a good school now is that it demonstrates a striking unanimity of approach. Today's teachers are team players, and keeping them working together and well motivated is a demanding task. This places a heavy premium on leadership, and I would guess that what really is common to the schools that most impress OFSTED is good leadership, from a head who shows clarity of purpose, personal effectiveness and the ability to inspire and motivate.
For my money, anyone who possesses these characteristics will be simply incapable of running a stilted, formal and heavily didactic institution.