Thursday 29 March 2012

'Outstanding' stuff in schools

Getting away from all that Ofsted stuff for a moment: great things seen in schools.

I can't mention the names of the schools but in two separate schools I've seen some great things.

First a school that was given 'Outstanding' by Ofsted (oh hello again, Ofsted). This was in an area where most of the pupils are of Bangladeshi origin. There appeared to be many, many things going on at the same time to make it outstanding. In what I'm writing here, I'm not picking out the magic ingredients that appear to have 'done the trick'. I'm simply saying what impressed me - given who I am, and where I'm coming from.

I loved the fact that there was a 'Family Room' which was full all day with classes and then in the evening there was a cooking class. It was clear that parents have a place in the school and things are done by them as well as for them. My own feeling is that unless and until this is done in a systematic way, schools in many areas will be trying to run up a down escalator. Parents have to be part of the cause of the education of their parents and their skills and knowledge harnessed in all the many ways they've got at their disposal - telling stories, sharing experiences, showing how things were done, can be done etc etc.

The deputy head told me that they put an enormous emphasis in the school on the idea of being inspiring. I was told that the school tries to figure out ways in which each theme or topic taught is introduced to the children in a way that makes them surprised and excited. This followed up by trying to engage the children in coming up with questions on the topic or theme and it's these questions which drive the curriculum for that next period. That interested me a lot and I would like to go back and see that in action some time.

In the other school, it was an event. Years 2,3 and 4 have been working with Dorinia Harley a woman who runs the Emashi African Dance Group. She had been teaching them drumming, dance and singing. Separately in their year groups and then together drawing in the rest of the school, parents and teachers, the children, Dorinia and another woman presented a passionate, exciting, stirring show involving everyone. Dorinia herself is calm, modest, assured and brings out a total commitment from everyone.

I found myself musing about how or where such an event - and all the preparation - fits in the outlines and of what makes a good school. No one got any marks, it was a co-operative,collective display bringing the children, parents and teachers together. Everyone could participate - of course some people showed exceptional talents within that - but that was part of the whole, not something to one side. By some criteria, the event was without value. You could argue, perhaps, that it didn't take those children to any higher form of literacy, numeracy or science. It didn't offer them access to the language and process of power, which, it's argued, many of those children are traditionally excluded what's the point?

I'd answer that two ways: 1)there is tremendous 'value' in the event and preparation for itself. It asks of everyone to listen and co-operate. For many (of any background), it asks for a certain humility and flexibility to take on something new. There is a good deal of emphasis in the drumming and dance on forms of co-ordination and physical expression which many children rarely get a chance to use. In that sense, it's an extension of who you are and who you might be. 2) In the longterm, there's something else, isn't there? If you ask yourself, how often do children in schools get the chance to immerse themselves in something which requires them to tune into each other and to act in co-ordination with everyone else? Not very often. Learning is primarily seen in our culture as something acquired by individuals, for individuals - and yet in schools we instil this collectively! It's an extremely uneasy marriage and teachers sweat tears and blood to enable children to do both - learn collectively and individually. Again, for whatever reasons, many children come into schools full of self-blame, fears of detachment and unhappiness. Most people - children or adults - with this kind of stuff going on in their lives, will on occasions express these things aggressively. That's what schools deal with every single day. One way to make things easier is to create these big, festive occasions where everyone can participate, no one needs to be left out, and where everyone has to rely on you and you have to rely on everyone. In short, there is no way of knowing exactly where such events lead in terms of those tested and measured subjects but my hunch is that they are part of how a school can be a place where every child feels that they are safe and that it's a place where they can be 'can-do' people.