by a primary school teacher in Tower Hamlets
When I was at school I worked hard, did what I was told and got good results. When I was at university I hoped an under graduate degree in education would shed some light on the true potential education has to make a better world. I studied philosophy and sociology of education at a university for whom the faculty of education, its roots in vocational training, was a slightly embarrassing poor relation, best kept at arms length and occasionally derided. The message was sometimes enlightening, the medium certainly was not. I embarked on a PGCE at the Institute of Education where I lost all hope that our education system held any radical elements that might actually cut through the elitist bureaucracy of government policy; clearly it was up to the individual to find the tiny cracks around the edges of the system wherever they could and fill them with something that felt more like being alive than a standards-driven agenda of mind-reducing mundanity. The real tragedy being that the vast majority of people didn’t seem to realise that there was any need to look for the cracks, let alone feel able to start to think what mind-expanding possibilities you might be able to fill them with.
And then I found a place that was one big crack, through which sun-light streamed. A place that had been built on the solid principles of child-centred, class conscious principles, and by in large stuck to them in both its theory and practice. The place isn’t perfect, but is a place with more integrity than any other educational institution I’ve been involved with. So here are a few things that our ordinary state funded community primary school is and does that shows us that you can.
The starting point for our inner-city primary school serving a diverse and economically deprived community is that everyone is welcome. We turn no one away, and have a policy of never excluding anyone. In practice this means that we welcome the children that other schools find ways of excluding. We have a high number of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, and the challenge of meeting the needs of these children is at the core of what we do. We pride ourselves on being a truly inclusive school, which means no covert selection, no exclusion and no setting or streaming. At the heart of our school is the belief that people behave in ways for reasons, everyone is good and we need to try and understand what the message is in the behaviour of children – even if it’s extremely challenging. To this end there is a no shouting policy, problems are discussed with children, sometimes over and over again. Boundaries are firm but fair, and never delivered with anger or aggression. There is no school uniform, and all the staff are known to the children by their first names which encourages a sense of mutual respect and humanity. Staff often talk about their feelings, we’re not merely professionals but people too; we ask children to respect our feelings as we respect theirs, and we try to help children recognise that different people need different things, and everyone needs compassion.
Classrooms are all unique, safe interesting places that reflect the diversity of our community. School policy states that the physical environment of the school should reflect our equalities policy, thus you’ll see positive messages about being gay, black female, or disabled throughout the school. Each room has a cosy book corner and a special table which is home to precious objects and things of sentimental value. There is no fixed seating in any class; the tables are arranged to allow children to sit individually, in pairs, threes, fours, fives or sixes as they wish or sometimes as is needed.
The vast majority of teaching is collaborative and mixed ability therefore from a very young age children learn to respect each others differences in learning styles and pace, and learn to support one another. This is a direct contrast with the practice of the national literacy and numeracy strategy which focuses heavily on differentiated group teaching, splitting children up sometimes across year groups for isolated sessions. We don’t do the literacy or numeracy hour, rather we try and embed literacy and numeracy skills throughout our planning, and try and set up situations in which children can explore ideas and apply the ‘tools’ or skills their learning to something meaningful. We trying to get away from dividing knowledge into subjects; instead we take an interesting theme as a focal point for all our work across the disciplines. This term in year six we’ve so far focused on evolution, revolution and now migration as the themes for our learning. Each time we endeavour to make the children’s own experiences and passions our starting point for planning, and then look outwards into the big world they’re living in and bring aspects of that world they might not have come into contact with yet into our classroom. In this way ideas are linked, not only to each other, but to the people who are thinking about them, and this develops a tapestry of learning that centrally is about perspectives and relationships.
There are other things that I like about our school: we don’t teach to the test, we recognise that SATs aren’t measuring what we value as real education and therefore don’t mind if we don’t do very well in them – or at least I don’t, and as a teacher I’m allowed that autonomy by management. Every child learns to swim, and to play the violin. Every child learns to play the violin – this is no mean feat, and was the initiative of a previous head teacher who thought all children should have the opportunities middle class children have, so made it possible. We have a school council who are integral to the hiring of staff amongst other things – and class representatives are not only democratically elected but, as one humbled member of my class found out, also recallable if they lose the trust and respect of their peers.
There are of course still ways in which we’re trapped by the system. But generally I come home feeling as if I’ve been able to do my job with some integrity and I hear children believing in themselves and what they’re doing. In essence, I now firmly believe where there’s a will, there are ways; the question is, where’s the will?