The way we were, they are, and we all should be

9th May 2003 at 01:00
An account of an infant school's refusal to toe the line on prescriptive learning gives Ted Wragg hope for the future

The Creative School, By Bob Jeffrey and Peter Woods; RoutledgeFalmer pound;17.99

The best feature of the story told in this book is that it has been written up for others to read. The worst is that a book defending creativity in school had to be written at all. The demand for "compliance" has taken such a stranglehold on education that an account of a school that was not prepared to bend the knee is refreshing.

The Coombes infant school in Arborfield, Reading, has wrestled with the demands of bureaucracy and government prescription, and won. Bob Jeffrey, a former primary teacher, and Peter Woods, an academic, for many years at the Open University, give an eyewitness account of what the school has done and continues to achieve.

Reading this engaging story was a strange experience. I have seen most of the activities described in it before. There seemed nothing unusual about bringing visitors into school from all walks of life, taking pupils on visits, capitalising on the environment, working on topics and themes, trying to unify what could, for young children, be a disparate set of subjects. Then I realised what felt odd about it. I was in the wrong decade. This was not happening in the 1960s and 1970s. It was now.

The saddest letter I have received for many years came from a primary school head in a rural area, not unlike that in which Coombes is located.

She told me how she had wanted to start off the literacy hour with a visit to a local farm so the children could witness lambs being born, then return to school to write about the miracle of birth. Unfortunately an Ofsted inspection was taking place that week and the registered inspector, who must have had an especially small space between and behind the eyeballs, vetoed it.

This is precisely the sort of oppression Coombes has cleverly managed to avoid. The authors mention Ofsted from time to time, but the stormtroopers hover in the background rather than dominate centre stage. Occasionally there is a favourable quote from the school's Ofsted report (it sounds as if they had one of the more enlightened inspection teams, rather than a squad of headbangers). Sometimes a teacher laments the need to fill in forms and tick boxes.

The book covers the same sort of topics that might be described in any school account: the ethos, learning through the environment, curriculum organisation and delivery (I beg your pardon; wash your mouth out with soap and water this instant), the learning experience, the learning community.

The narrative is clear and well illustrated. I jibbed at the occasional overdose of sentiment ("It's a very loving friendly-atmosphered school. I love it"), but the syrup is not too cloying.

The timetable looks familiar enough, with a literacy hour from 9.10am to 10.10 and a numeracy session from 11.30am to 12.30pm. The afternoon includes arts and, occasionally, science. Looks familiar. The "drills am and frills pm" approach - I remember it well. But closer scrutiny reveals Friday to be a literacy-and-numeracy-hour-free zone. Hoo-bloody-ray. Here is a school that has the courage to do real literacy and numeracy in context, by scheduling the whole day for projects and activities, and to hell with government-prescribed robotics.

One of the most interesting features of the whole story is the imaginative use of the environment by children and teachers, and indeed the many members of the community, not just parents, who came along. You get the feeling that if an asteroid had landed on the playground, one group would have mapped it, another written a poem about it, a third would have painted a wall frieze from it, and a fourth cooked it for supper. But then, opportunism used to be the lifeblood of primary teaching, before it got programmed to death.

This book is more than just a rehash of 1960s creativity (many ideas from that decade were self-indulgent twaddle). It shows how a group of determined and imaginative people can rescue teaching and learning from the voracious flames of bureaucracy and control.

Glenys Kinnock MEP once told me she had visited Afghanistan and heard how women had met secretly to educate their daughters, an activity forbidden under the Taliban. Coombes operates under a much less dire regime, but shows nonetheless how difficult it is to repress the human spirit.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University

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