Back to Basics in British Schools

Progressive methods meet tradition backlash

'LUCY, are you ready?" inquires Helen Sabin, quietly but pointedly.Lucy's over-enthusiasm subsides momentarily. Now all fourteen 4-to-5-year-olds (two absent) sitting on the carpet near the door of Mrs. Sabin's "Reception" class (equivalent to kindergarten in the United States) are ready - eyes closed, hands on knees - to "Go To Letterland." This is where letters are people and animals: C is Clever Cat, D Dippy Duck, I Impy Ink. The youngest children in Clay Cross Infant School (for 4-to-7-year-olds) quite obviously love Letterland. Everything, you feel, is running as it should, or better, in the youngest class at Clay Cross Infant School: lively, interested children, a stimulating classroom, a dedicated, efficient teacher instilling basic language and number skills on one hand, and enlarging imaginations on the other. Yet a headline in The Times of London the previous week read: "Clarke heralds new primary school era." British Education Secretary Kenneth Clarke was quoted as saying that primary children "are being let down by modern teaching methods." He advocates a return to formal "whole class teaching," and more detailed lessons in particular subjects - a return to traditional schooling, in other words. This is in line with other up-and-running changes made by this Conservative government in British primary schools . Though Mr. Clarke was not talking specifically about the younger end of primary schools, Clay Cross Infants is bound to feel the pressures of his "new era." The government, says a Department of Education and Science spokeswoman, aims at "a shake-up of teacher training methods" after the results of a report due in January. Does the government acknowledge the effectiveness of current teaching practices at their best? Things go wrong, the spokeswoman responds, "when people stress one particular method at the expense of all others." Helen Sabin feels pressured by government changes. She and her fellow teachers are determined to uphold "progressive" methods and convictions that their experience has shown them do work, while complying with any new government requirements. Mrs. Sabin says that much of what is being asked for has been done for years - teaching basic reading, for example. One of her greatest satisfactions is when, at the end of their time with her, children "go off reading - when you knew that when they came they couldn't read anything." These children are launching out on what Head Teacher Isabel Sharman calls a "long road of education," adding firmly: "And we've got to get it right for them at this stage in order for the rest to be of any value." A visitor is quickly aware that the way this Head and her one half-time and six full-time teachers are "getting it right" is not only by a grounding in "basics," but by a good deal of imaginative enrichment. The population of this largely working-class town is just over 9,000, and Sharman has no doubt that what the children of Clay Cross need is "an enrichment of experience." To her, providing this is the basic role of this school. "Unless they get that," she says, "all the rest falls down anyway. You ca n't expect a child to write creatively and imaginatively if there's nothing in there much in his mind. But already the government has turned toward "subject" teaching again, dividing the curriculum into old categories like art, geography, physical education, history, "maths," and the rest. Teachers at this primary school and others say they already teach such conventional subjects as part of larger "topics." Here, for instance, this term's topic is "Home." Other topics include weather, shops and markets, local industries, and so forth. Sharman and her staff say that such topics, close to the children's o wn experience, have more meaning and relevance than standardized, traditional subject categories. BUT a national curriculum of nine subjects is now being phased in: "maths" (arithmetic), English, science, technology, history, geography, physical education, art, and music. Even the youngest children are expected to gain a certain competence in those subjects. "I mean," says Sabin, laughing, "think of a four- to five-year-old doing geography. Well! The mind boggles, doesn't it?" Later, with more time to talk, she points out that what the government terms "design and technology" has been done here for a long time: Junk modeling that's what we used to call it!" It is "thinking about things, and putting them together." Many teachers have cried "Too much, too fast!" to the standardized assessments, reports, and tests that have been introduced, placing an extra load on already burdened teachers. In some schools demoralization has threatened. But not at Clay Cross. The attitude here is, in the Head's words, "What you can't change, you have to make work for you." Her staff have aimed to make the new demands "manageable," while determining "not to lose sight of children's needs, or how they learn best." Deputy Head Teacher Judith Tipper is in favor of much of the national curriculum. She sums up what many teachers say about the emphasis on test results, however: "They don't show you where we started from with a child," she says, nor can tests indicate a child's social background or problems at home. In Sabin's class, children's work is displayed on every available vertical and horizontal surface and even dangles from the ceiling: jack-in-the-boxes they have made, pictures they have painted based on sounds they could hear lying in bed at home, all sorts of models and pictures. These are witness to Sabin's emphasis on making and doing, painting and communicating. In class, Sabin has an eye on all of them, it seems. She answers four questions at once. She gently asks Lucy - whose mother recently walked out of the family home - if she'd like to tell her about whatever it is she is suddenly day-dreaming about. She suggests how Jamie could stop his dragon's eyes from falling off before the glue sets, praises the picture of a house Claire is making on the computer screen, helps the other Jamie to pin wheels to his double-decker bus made out of a cornflakes box, and ca lls for anyone who would like to be an audience "to watch Gemma and Stacey's story." Nobody seeing Helen Sabin's class could doubt that these children are learning, learning every moment. Her comment is observably true: "There's no stopping them, really!"

Other articles in this series: Nov. 4 (Alice Springs, Australia), Nov. 18 (Sao Paulo, Brazil), and Dec. 2 (Tokyo).

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