Into the unknown;Beat the inspector

26th June 1998 at 01:00
Can you let your nursery class take control and still win Ofsted approval? Registered inspector Bill Laar says "yes"

It was the day the children took over. This is a story of two lessons, or more accurately, as sporting commentators would have it, of "two halves": one that broke down, mid-way, after an assured beginning and stately development, with objectives only partially realised, and a second, conducted largely by the children, to whom the teacher seemed to have yielded control and who was - subsequently - permitted an occasional intervention.

Yet the inspector, apparently no less overwhelmed and hapless, judged that he had witnessed a lesson - or more precisely an educational experience - of notable quality.

It all began in absolute decorum, an exemplar of precisely planned, appropriate and effective teaching and learning. The class, drawn from a socially and economically disadvantaged area, were absorbed - in the unique way of children not long past fourth birthdays - in a range of activities concerned with the making and comparing of straight and curved, or "wriggly" lines. These were being painted, modelled in dough and Plasticine, shaped from string and constructed in counters. All the activities were designed to achieve defined objectives and serious purposes: to provide experience of a range of media to encourage experimentation; to develop cutting, sticking, and gluing skills; to focus on pattern and shape; and particularly to support and reinforce the children's early, tentative steps in letter formation with the construction of those mysterious symbols comprised of straight and curved lines.

The teacher's planning - carefully linked to the school's literacy policy - kept a sharp eye on the Government targets for children starting statutory schooling. The objectives were shared with the children: there were helpful demonstrations and clear instructions; tasks were matched to aptitude and development, resources were appropriate and generous; there were effective strategies for ensuring support for groups and individuals.

The session started briskly and moved serenely to what would have been, without doubt, a worthy and valuable conclusion. Then without warning or notice, the children took over, and objectives, intentions and desirable outcomes went spiralling into oblivion.

The trigger was a casual reference made to a group by the inspector about evidence of a space project in an adjoining creative area: an adult-sized "space capsule", planets, meteorites and comets suspended from the ceiling, astronauts' equipment and paraphernalia, lunar "craters", all constructed from a remarkable range of junk material, and obviously the work of young children.

The group responded to the innocent enquiry as if literally launched into space, sweeping from their table and dragging the inspector to the heart of the display, while maintaining a running bombardment of information about every aspect of the project. They were followed instantly, and without exception, by the rest of the class, who added to the general clamour.

When wild enthusiasm was eventually channelled and an order of priority for speech established, the children spent the final fifteen minutes or so of the session recounting what had transpired. Out of the welter of description, the varying perceptions, the arguments, and sometimes conflicting evidence, came a rich and eventually coherent history of the expedition to the moon, with "linking" contributions allowed from the teacher.

The project was launched after the pupils' read Whatever Next! by Jill Murphy (Macmillan pound;3.99pound;8.99), a story of nursery toys' journeys to the moon. The decision - jointly made with the teacher - was that the class should make a similar trip.

Activities included: planning and listing astronauts' requirements and resources (such as breathing apparatus, personal telescopes and gravity-defying boots); designing and making space outfits; and building the awesome capsule itself, complete with instrument panel, booster rockets, bunks and storage space - all appropriately labelled with safety notices.

There was a final farewell before blast-off, the flight itself, a landing on a lunar surface studded with craters, and a desperate encounter with aliens...

At the end of it all, the inspector was left with the crucial lesson observation form incomplete, the planned lesson abandoned, limited evidence of outcomes realised or objectives achieved. The class had dominated proceedings, albeit through the subtle engineering and unobtrusive interventions of the teacher, who swiftly adapted to a wholly unexpected turn of events.

But, in his judgment, the inspector had witnessed something notable - an instance of children consumed with excitement by an educational experience.

There is no question that the intensive planning common to all primary schools, and fostered to a large extent by the prospect of inspection, has led in turn to a greater measure of secure, ordered, highly efficient and very effective teaching. At the same time the tendency "to plan for Ofsted" solely according to particular criteria has encouraged safe, predictable and - in places - unadventurous teaching and ordered but circumscribed learning.

On this occasion, an inspector was privileged to see an extremely competent and highly professional lesson transcended by something far more remarkable; children's exhilaration at a piece of enduring learning, created in turn by inspirational teaching.

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