It’s hard to feel like a covert revolutionary when hovering around a reception class on a chilly Thursday morning. But within minutes of arriving at St Silas’ Church of England Primary School in Blackburn, it is clear that I have stepped into a bold educational experiment that daringly flies in the face of much current accepted thinking. All around, four- and five-year-olds are playing energetically with water, building things or writing stories. So far, so normal, except that – compulsory phonics instruction apart – pupils are allowed to concentrate on one activity all day if they want to. Equally, they are free to wander from task to task.
I am not often in touch with my inner Nick Gibb but at first this “free play” approach leaves me feeling a little at sea. Don’t children need structure? I mean, what’s the plan here? Moving up through the school, my Hirschian jaw begins to relax. All parts of the national curriculum are being covered, in depth and, apparently, with huge enthusiasm. Some nine-year-olds show me the Anderson shelters they have built before reading from their spirited reimaginings of aspects of the Second World War. It is abundantly clear that by Year 6, St Silas’ has created a room full of independent learners, deeply engaged in what they are doing.
This is reflected in steadily improving Sats scores, despite the school losing many high achievers to two newly opened local free schools. This year’s cohort are the first to have spent their entire primary school life using the Slow Education approach.
Freedom to learn
Over at Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale, an 11-16 comprehensive, a similar revolution is in progress. A mix of independent project work, detailed feedback and group work, and an emphasis on genuine research skills, produces 12-year-olds who can talk articulately about whether we are at risk of running out of electricity, while sharing details of their ongoing correspondence with postgraduates from the University of Manchester.
The well-resourced music department is full of pink- and blue-haired teenagers playing loudly in studios, mixing tracks or creating promotional material for upcoming concerts.
Senior leaders at Matthew Moss, under a new headteacher since 2013, are currently wrestling with the implications of the English Baccalaureate, reluctant to force students into taking subjects that don’t engage them.
The school, in the top quintile for measures of deprivation, is keen to improve on its 2014 GCSE headline results (49 per cent of pupils achieved a C or above in five or more subjects, including English and maths). But one of its strengths is the way it encourages students to find out what they love, and pursue it.
National figures for the last quarter of 2014 show that 7 per cent of post-16s were not in education and employment. The figure for Matthew Moss (over one year) is 1.7 per cent. It performs strongly on value-added measures.
In one sense, Slow Education is nothing new. It is the modern recasting of a progressive approach to education that goes back to the original “free schools” of Summerhill and Kilquhanity in Scotland or the post-war experiments of secondary-modern headteacher Alex Bloom in London’s East End. Sadly, these innovative educators have been caricatured over the years as part of the disingenuous Goveian rewriting of educational history.
But what strikes me the most about this modern version of “child-centred education” is its rigour. It mixes something of today’s “high expectations” culture with older ideas about having the time – and the freedom – to learn.
At both schools, I found myself impressed by the commitment and self-critical reflection among school leaders, teachers and teaching assistants. It also offers an interesting way out of what is fast becoming a rather tired debate about knowledge versus skills. There’s plenty of “traditional” learning in both schools (what you or I might call “normal lessons”) yet the whole point of Slow Education is not to spurn knowledge but to anchor it more authentically.
Pressure from parents
As Mike Grenier, a teacher at Eton, and a member of the Slow Education network, argues: “To achieve mastery of a subject requires time to learn but also time to reflect on how learning has happened. Many simple tests/forms of assessment largely remove any thinking and become tests of memory. Thus, the so-called traditionalists rail against skills as if they are somehow nebulous and examples of lazy thinkers, and the so-called progressives see knowledge as damaging to creativity and of no lasting significance. Both positions are incorrect.”
Grenier adds that the “more nuanced synthesis of thinking and learning at the heart of Slow Education [is] hard to implement [in a] culture of ‘fast-food’ learning in which… measurement has become paramount”.
In other words: how can we balance the development of a love of learning for its own sake with the high, and some would argue obsessive, priority now attached to raw data?
A lot of the external pressure comes not only from government ministers or Ofsted but also from ambitious parents. During my tours of St Silas’ and Matthew Moss, I couldn’t help wondering how such pushy parents (there are virtually none in either of the schools) would react to Slow Education. Panic, I suspect.
Which is a pity. The corridors and classrooms of both schools hum with enjoyment, the ease of relations between staff and students and a kind of intellectual happiness. Matthew Moss set up a Saturday school: scores of Year 10 and 11 students come to revise, or tackle difficult bits of the curriculum, with volunteer “learning coaches” from Rochdale Sixth Form College. Such enthusiasm is not unusual in state schools, of course, but it is worth celebrating in contrast to the dreary drilland-kill approach currently so dominant in England’s education system.
Melissa Benn is a founder of the Local Schools Network and author of School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education. She has a website, melissabenn.com