Surprised by spontaneous Scots;School Management

5th November 1999 at 00:00
Eleanor Caldwell reports from Perth and Kinross, where a group of Dutch teachers have been visiting primary schools

For years partnerships between European and Scottish schools have flourished, with regular exchanges of teachers and pupils thanks to funding from the Socrates programme. As the European parliament's call for an increase in Socrates money from pound;1 billion to pound;1.3 billion met with opposition last week from the UK and other member states, a group of 30 Dutch teachers was visiting 10 primary schools in Perth and Kinross.

The visit was the idea of headteacher Kate Walker of Fossoway primary. She had worked with her partner school in the town of Woerden near Utrecht, and was the natural contact point for the visiting group. They included heads, deputes, advisers and teacher trainers who work mainly in Dutch Jenaplan schools.

The Jenaplan concept, originally conceived in Germany, is a strongly child-centred approach. There is an all-embracing curriculum delivered within a "rhythmic weekplan", and the circle situation is integral to all aspects of the school day.

Ms Walker's name had been passed to a Jenaplan college of education lecturer, who recognised the similarity between Jenaplan thinking and the topic-led 5-14 environmental studies programme which relates to the child's experience. "I think the Dutch teachers decided that we are actually a Jenaplan school without meaning to be," said Ms Walker.

The teachers were impressed by behaviour at Fossoway, and surprised by the "spontaneous, relaxed and free atmosphere" of the primary. It disproved their expectations of highly structured regimes, based on their view of English education.

Behavioural problems in their own schools are greater, they said, because children in Holland are more involved in decision making and discussion with parents, and this often leads to rejection of the more structured regime in school.

The positive discipline used in Perthshire schools appealed to the visitors. Child-centred rewards are integral to the Jenaplan approach. But teacher trainer Sini Dekker said team or group rewards would not translate well into their own system: "In Holland, competition is a very nasty word."

Basic class composition was of particular interest to the Dutch teachers. A key Jenaplan concept is the "multi-age homeroom", where pupils aged six to nine, or nine to 12, learn to live and work together in a group. They thought the composite classes they visited in Perthshire did not reflect this.

On a visit to Kinross primary later in the week the Dutch were impressed by the wall displays. "We don't use walls so nicely to put work on," said Eva Ronhaar. She explained that their own classrooms are very basic. Long blackboards and big windows leave little space for display.

Headteacher George Wilson pointed out that at most primary schools in Scotland even the windows would be used for display.

The response to the Dutch visit was extremely positive at both Fossoway and Kinross primaries. Kate Walker said: "The children thoroughly enjoyed talking to the visitors. They felt valued and really wanted to share their opinions on lots of different topics like uniform. And staff gained a great deal from the experience. It was a very real exchange. The Dutch teachers came with an agenda and generated conversations which were just so alive."

On the last day of the Dutch teachers' visit, Perthshire heads at a quality assurance seminar said they found it refreshing to have the opportunity to share educational discussion with their European counterparts and to challenge their own thinking on learning and teaching.

"I came along to the seminar to thank the headteachers for hosting the Dutch visitors," education development officer Cecilia Flanigan said. "I've had countless people saying how grateful they are for having had the chance to meet European visitors in their own schools." The headteachers group hopes to make a reciprocal visit to northern Holland next year.

Len McConnell, head of service at Perth and Kinross, said any threat of cuts to such visits would be unfortunate: "The Government has a commitment to a policy of continual improvement. And we can see from visits like this that a great deal can be learned through the sharing of practice. It would be regrettable to damage this interface in any way. We can learn from others as much as they do from us."

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