The national curriculum is being abolished, giving schools much greater freedom, says Nick Holdsworth
Headteacher Blanka Janovska jokes that she believes in going back to basics as she takes charge of a maths lesson for a group of nine-year-olds in her suburban school in Prague. But her methods are far from traditional.
Her school is one of 56 piloting a radical reform, championed by ministers, which will abolish the national curriculum in favour of learning targets from 2004. Schools will be given much greater freedom to design their own ways of helping their pupils achieve them.
The classroom in Chlupova elementary, a small school of 313 pupils and 16 staff surrounded by concrete apartment blocks, is buzzing with activity. Working in groups, the mixed-ability children are using small wooden cubes and sticks to represent single and decimal units.
Mrs Janovska says the "active learning" approach, using tactile methods to improve mathematical understanding, is a revision of an old method. But then her school in Prague's Luziny district is well known as a centre of innovation. The six to 11-year-olds here are taught by teachers dedicated to flexible, child-centred learning, where the pupils themselves are as much a part of the teaching process as the staff.
"We have long tried to adapt the method of teaching and lesson content to the abilities and talents of the children," says Mrs Janovska, a teacher for 25 years.
"Talented children are given more challenging material than others, but are expected to help explain problems to less able children. They are all expected to co-operate with each other and the teachers, and work in teams to arrive at solutions."
Any child can be called upon to give a presentation, she adds. The "weakest" child is expected to be able to present the results of group work, and to explain the issues, as clearly as the brightest.
The approach results in "bright, self-confident children, not afraid to question authority, who know how to find and process information and who are prepared for lifelong learning", says Mrs Janovska.
Only children studying English are streamed. This is to prevent the brightest pupils leaving for competitive language schools.
It is an approach that will soon be part of mainstream Czech education as the education ministry implements a major curriculum shake-up that could take effect by 2004.
The change will be put to parliament in a new general education Act next year. Further Bills are scheduled to reform teacher training, lifelong learning and the university system.
Mrs Janovska's school has been using these kinds of methods for years but she believes ordinary schools will find the transition much more challenging.
"Most Czech schools are very traditional and it may be difficult for them to cope with the new programme," she says.
"We experience this sometimes when our children leave their next school: teachers are not accustomed to such self-confident 11-year-olds and sometimes feel threatened."
TEARING DOWN TRADITION
The Czech Republic's bold reforms will remove traditional subject barriers, as well as giving schools much greater freedom to decide what and how pupils should be taught.
Central to the new approach is the grouping of subjects under nine inter-disciplinary headings, including "language and communication", "maths and application", "man and nature" and "man and society". Teachers may still teach subjects within the old boundaries such as physics, biology or chemistry. But they could also combine these under a heading such as "man and nature".
The shake-up - a response to approaching European Union membership and recognition that school-leavers are poor at applying knowledge - promises to revolutionise what remains a stolidly traditional system.
"The reform is designed to address issues of child-centred education, based upon our own research and experience from other European countries," said Karel Tomek, director of the education ministry's pre-school and primary department.
"The world is changing, along with priorities. The new system is designed to address all the challenges our children face."
Czech pupils performed below average among industrialised countries and there was a low equality of performance - on a par with the UK - between children of different socio-economic classes, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's 2002 indicators.