Visit a primary school if you need a tonic

19th May 2006 at 01:00
* a recent visit to a primary school, I had the opportunity to meet members of the school council. The children, representing all stages, had been elected by their classmates to raise matters of common interest and report back on decisions taken.

On occasions such as these, my principal aim is simply to create a relaxed atmosphere in which the youngsters feel free to talk. I need not have worried. These children were confident and articulate and all those present contributed to the discussion, which included comments on bullying, school meals, playground facilities, litter and after-school activities.

For me, the most interesting comments came when I asked what they liked most about their school. I'm not sure what I expected - perhaps references to meeting their pals or the fun of playtime. What I got were thoughtful observations on two related themes.

First, they said they liked the fact that their teachers were approachable and could be relied upon to help them with their lessons. If they got stuck, they knew they could ask for assistance.

Second, they said they enjoyed coming to school to learn, and especially welcomed the opportunity to learn new things. Interestingly, at no point did they refer to learning as "work".

This was an inner-city school with a mixed catchment area which included tower blocks housing some "problem" families. More than 40 per cent of the pupils were entitled to free school meals. Their attitude to learning could not always be attributed to positive parental aspirations.

Clearly, the ethos within the school was conducive to learning, a fact borne out by the impressive wall displays I noted on my tour of the building. The atmosphere was focused and purposeful, a testimony to both the commitment of the staff and the responsiveness of the children.

I also had the opportunity to speak to staff, including not only the headteacher and her senior colleagues, but also unpromoted and newly appointed teachers. Here again, I was struck by the emphasis on learning and on meeting the needs of each child.

I asked what would enable them to do an even better job than they do at present. There were some limitations which could not be overcome - notably the 1930s building which was not designed for flexibility of use. They welcomed the greater freedom offered by A Curriculum for Excellence, seeing it as a welcome release from the rigidity of 5-14. Predictably, they said that reducing class sizes would help, though they acknowledged that the appointment of classroom assistants had been very beneficial.

One proposal arising from a discussion of how best to deal with disruptive children was of particular interest. The staff were anxious to reduce interruptions to the learning of the majority of children but were also concerned to make constructive provision for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Having a dedicated member of staff who was available at all times to provide support to children who had to be withdrawn from their normal class would, it was suggested, benefit all parties and enable the centrality of learning to be maintained.

The pupils on the school council had some questions for me. I was asked what a professor actually did. I explained that some of my time was spent doing research (a term they were quite familiar with) and writing.

They seemed disappointed when I said that my writing was not of the Harry Potter variety. But if they were disappointed with me, I was certainly not with them. The visit was a delight and it set me up for the day.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University.

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