Monday, June 30, 2008

Back to School.

Visited two Montgomeryshire Primary Schools today, including my old primary school, hoping to learn something about the 'Foundation Phase'. This is the Assembly Government's revolutionary way of teaching 3-7 year olds - through play, rather than sitting them down at the desk listening to teacher. It all sounded a bit dodgy to me - and Alun Cairns had been telling me about how the whole thing is grossly underfunded. Anyway, I thought I'd go and talk to some of professionals at the chalk face.

Have to admit that I'm persuaded (conditionally). The first School I went to has been a 'pilot', where this new way of teaching has been tried out. The head, who is a good friend of mine, swears by the new system. Too early for measuring outcomes yet, but I respect his judgement. The other School, where I spent six years of my own childhood had real concerns. The Headteacher is enthusiastic about the new way of teaching, but isn't sure that there will be enough money to deliver it. And that is the nub of the issue.

The Assembly Government itself recognises that it needs a teacher to every 8 pupils for it to work, (in the early years) and not enough money has been allocated to fund this. Interestingly, I'm told that the introduction of the Foundation Phase will be mandatory from September, but the pupil/teacher ratio will not be mandatory - suggesting a recognition that the funding is not going to be there. And that's the reason my willingness to welcome the scheme is only 'conditional'. We do not know how successful 'teaching through play' will be if it is not properly funded. This is probably the most significant policy difference that's emerged between Wales and England since devolution. Its a really big deal, and I want to fully understand it. So I've asked my PA to fix up more visits to schools.


Anonymous said...

It is "dodgy", my father was without job and moved the family from Wales to London - we ended up in a place called Abbeywood (spelling might be off), near Plumstead in South East London. I was still in junior school and went to a 'progressive' school where the kids were either dunces or they were not learning the "Three Rs". None of them could do long division, many couldn't do multiplication and quite a few of them couldn't read and write properly. My parents later told me that some of the other parents were very worried about their kids not being able to read and write properly. I remember one teacher who just kept giving me questions out of a maths book. I kept getting them right - but the teacher just kept on giving me more of the same questions. It was pointless, I was learning NOTHING.

The school was even designed "progressively" - no corridors, you literally walked through class rooms to get to your class. There were bathroom facilities in each class. School dinners were great, but the 'progressive' education system was awful. Even as young as I was, I guessed the school was next to useless. I wasn't learning anything there. It did not help that I had a strong Welsh accent - some of the teachers pointed it out to me, I did not understand that I had something called 'a Welsh accent'. I remember being called out of class and told to go to the head's office - there was a Welsh teacher there, they wanted me to meet her. Didn't make any sense to me, I didn't really understand the English v. Welsh thing was. Turned out she had taught at the school and was visiting it to see her friends (other teachers). This 'progressive'/backward school was very good at turning out kids who literally could not read/write properly, but could play lots of games and puzzles.

Anonymous said...

The crux of this is not the programme that has been welcomed by the profession, the concern is the money to ensure its rolled out properly and professionally.
If the Assembly see it as a flagship project, then fund it as that. Doing things half cocked benefits no one; the children, teachers, education in general or WAG and Jane Hutt.
Its better not to change the existing system than do half a job, you wouldn't do that with the electrics in your house, so why would we even think about it with our children's education.

Anonymous said...

I should clarify - the kids couldn't have been dunces - the fact that so many of them couldn't read/write/do arithmetic pointed to one thing: 'progressive teaching'/experimental methodology. Since that FIRST HAND experience how damaging an experimental method of teaching was to those kids.

I've just asked my mother if any of my brother's and sister went to the same school (being so young myself I knew they were in school, but I stuck to my year and did not mix with my younger brothers even when we all were in the same London Comprehensive, they had their friends and I had mine. Anyway, mum just told me that the teachers at the 'progressive' school thought it was wonderful that my sister could read "at that age". Again, thank the stars that she could read before entering that 'progressive' school. Mum said when she visited the school most of the children were playing games in the classrooms.

My mother reminded me of parents of one kid who came around our council house to find out how my brother could read when he went to the same school - he was not super intelligent, just an ordinary product of a few years traditional teaching in Wales, but he could read. My brother's friend could not and his parents were VERY CONCERNED about their son; my mum tells me that she advised them that the school was useless. It must have been a pathetic exchange - the boy's parents ridden with worry, and my mother explaining that the only reason her sons and daughter could read was because they could read before going to that 'progressive' school.

Sorry, but the three Rs are so important, ruining kids education for the sake of 'progressive' teaching theory is NOT ON. Kids that age can't make an informative decision, they can't give informed consent to being taught 'progressively' verses traditional three Rs. To my mind it is criminal to so disadvantage kids before they even enter secondary school.

My family were not well off, the council estate we lived on in Abbey Wood was HUGE. Children of school age living in such circumstances deserve to have a proper education, deserve to be taught the three Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic). For most of these kids it is the main way they can get into decent jobs and have a career instead of a series of dead end jobs, no career, and end up feeling so hopeless.

I hope Glyn you don't support 'progressive' teaching - take it from one who attended such a school - they do so much harm to kids who deserve AND NEED the three Rs.

Blodyn said...

Anonymous - this method of teaching/learning is something completely different from your experience and extremely exciting. My son has been practising this method of teching for nearly 10 years in primary schools in London and it is truly inspiring. Those involved in early years / primary teaching in England are looking over Offa's Dyke and wondering why it is that Wales is streets ahead by bringing this in later this year.

The children learn by their experiences in play - and every child's play is different and they are given the means and space to to act out situations and by doing so learn to read, count, problem solve, interact etc etc. Each child's play needs to be observed and parents need to be fully informed too so they can tell the staff how their child plays at home. There's those who like to wrap up dolls - enveloping if you like - they would be provided with a pretend post office counter for example and you can already see the opportunities for learning there - counting - geography oh just let your imagination go......

On the Assembly's website there are excellent brochures to read or download (unfortunately in full colour) but do read them and see the excellent examples of how this all works. Easiest way to get there is to 'google' "Welsh Assembly Foundation Phase in education" which will take you there.
Yes it does need more staff but not necessarily teachers - more assistants are needed and this is acknowledged on the Assembly's website - and you only need one fully trained teacher in each school to 'teach' the others. In my son's experience this is relatively easy as the staff become truly inspired when they see the results. 4 -year olds being able to write out the word elephant from memory for example.

Glyn - I've got an article from Guardian Education Supplement in 2000 about the school pioneering this method in London where my son worked. I'll post it to you.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the pilots have been an outstanding success, but only because of the crucial 1:8 ratio. Any higher and it becomes the very thing that cynics accuse it of being.
The clear underfunding is not in fact the fault of Jane Hutt (however appalling she is of trying to talk her way out of it) but Jane Davidson. In her previous role, she made the decisions that have led to today's shortfall.

Dr. Christopher Wood said...

Progressive teaching does not work with large class sizes. I think it was Valley's Mam or someone else that made that excellent point.

Sure it can be made to work if there is a 1:8 ratio. With such favourable teaching ratios a teacher can make sure that each of her pupils spends time learning to read and write, but in most schools the class sizes are far greater than that.

What's more, in Cardiff the Lib-Dem controlled council wants to shut down schools because of spare capacity - the Lib-Dems despite all their progressive ideas are not willing to fund low teacher/pupil ratios.

Glyn Davies said...

all - There is a general theme in the comments, and it could be that we're all thinking the same thing. I was deeply suspicious of the whole idea of 'learning through play' until I began talking to some of the teachers, who like Blodyn swear by what is being proposed - so I'm keeping an open mind about it. (Must admit I used to be in the Chris Woodhead school of thinking). But there has to a genuine ommittment to learning - and it needs the low teacher/pupil ratio, which needs extra funding. There is a lot of concern that if the budget isn't going to be there, the Foundation Phase will fail. I don't care for this word 'progressive' because its so associated with some of the daftness that went on in 60s/70s. 'Learning through Play' involves learning as well as play. I'm hoping to visit the other pilot scheme in Montgomeryshire next week.

Dr. Christopher Wood said...

Glyn> I agree with you and the others on this issue, that it (learning through play) with favourable teacher:pupil ratios. We already know traditional teaching of the three Rs work even in classes with 25+ kids to a teacher. I seem to recall that my school had such class sizes - but we all learnt the three Rs and it was a Godsend for us. Without the three Rs there is no way a kid from a council estate will ever make it into university.

It would be CRIMINAL to foster progressive teaching methods on youngsters in 1:25+ teacher:pupil ratio classes. Youngsters deserve and NEED the three Rs. We have to remember that many of these youngsters are coming from homes where a father or mother might be missing, where the parent might not be well educated and may not read them stories. I remember when I was on free-school meals when my father was out of work that there were kids whose main meal was the school dinner. It was bad when milk stopped, some of these kids didn't get a proper breakfast ... and some of these kids will only ever get the three Rs if it is taught in their infant/junior school. If they go into the upper school without the three Rs firmly in place such kids will be at a huge disadvantage. We owe it to them not to impose teaching methods on them that may not work - particularly if they are one of 25 or so kids in their class.

One more point: teachers who train to deliver the so called progressive teaching will likely be loath to go back to traditional teaching practices - we will end up with a cadre of teachers who prefer the progressive teaching methods even in situations where they don't work such as in large class sizes (norm in my day).

The youngsters have but one shot to learn the three Rs - we should not play games with their futures. A kid from a poor family stands little chance as it is - we MUST never tip the tables further against them. They deserve and NEED the three Rs. To give them less or to risk giving them less is next to murder in my book - these youngsters will not know we are robbing them of them main chance in life - WE MUST NOT DO THAT. I write this as a person from a poor (moneywise) home, who was dragged through many schools because of moves to "where the work is"/"in search of work" for my father. I was the first in my family to go to university - I lived on some of the worst council house estates, one very bad one in Caerphilly, another pretty bad one in South East London. ONLY because of my blessed Cefn Onn infant and junior school teachers, who despite large class sizes were dedicated and committed to give the children off the nearby council house estate (Llanishen council house estate) the very best education, and boy did they give us the three Rs. I owe my life to those wonderful teachers of Cefn Onn - same goes for at least one of my siblings (my youngest brother was a toddler when I went to Cefn Onn, and his first school he attended was in London where my father moved us to get work - he got work as a painter-decorator at shows like the Ideal Home Exhibition and the Boat Show at exhibition centers like Earls Court in Central London).

I remember being dirt poor, my mother without money to clothe herself and finding Saturday/Sunday work as a weekend cook/cleaner at a London teaching college) – we were so short of money I got a weekend job as soon as I could to pay for my own school uniform, a brother got an early morning paper round, a sister got a job in a take-away. It must have been very hard on my parents, but between us four kids we got six degrees and got through two sets of professional exams. Two degrees from the University of Wales, two degrees from English polytechnics, one degree from Glasgow University and one from DePaul University in Chicago.

We all attended schools with large class sizes - but we got taught the three Rs – all of us can read and write properly which bearing in mind my father couldn’t do that was a big thing. Without those three Rs we would have never gone into college. We wouldn't have stood a chance. I remember those kids at the progressive school I attended in Abbey Wood, many of them left without being able to read and write. What chance did those poor wee boys and girls have? Their lives were essentially set out for them: dead end jobs, no chance of any job where numbers/basic arithmetic was used. I remember having to go out with my father to size up jobs, to work out how many rolls of paper for the big jobs – he knew in his head how many rolls for a house, but for a big job he couldn’t work it out. He couldn’t estimate jobs. He couldn’t write invoices, he couldn’t work out anything complicated.

The wee boys and girls from that ‘progressive’ school - their education ruined - their chances of going on to college deeply undermined. Their only hope was based on getting the three Rs - but they didn't even get that. How many of them are now in decent professional jobs? Probably very few - how could they do well in the upper school without the three Rs? They were backward not because they were dunces - but because of the progressive teaching imposed on them, because their parents didn’t know how to protect them, were ill equipped to understand and placed faith in teachers in play/learning methodology that failed their children, ruined them in fact. This experiment didn't work on them, and they, the kids, paid the price, not the teachers who failed them, not the school authorities who allowed it to happen, but them kids. I can't get it out of my mind that my sister was remarkable for reading "at her age" – for heaven’s sake – ALL THE KIDS in her class back in Wales COULD READ. It wasn’t the least bit remarkable.

Those teachers fobbed off deeply worried, dirt poor parents who themselves lacked a proper education. By claiming (inaccurately) that it was remarkable that my sister could read "at her age" they were covering up the fact that their progressive teaching methods WERE NOT WORKING. What a dreadful experiment on those kids. IT WAS CRIMINAL. But the kids paid the price, not the 'teachers' who taught them. How many wee boys and girls were damaged goods after years of progressive teaching at that school in Abbey Wood, South East London. The school should be ripped down the teachers there should be banned for life, but hey, kids don't know that their lives are being ruined, are unable to give informed consent, and parents are left wondering why their kids can't read and write properly ... and long division - forget that. Fractions: what are they? Percentages: don't know guv. But I can stack shelves, collect garbage, be on the dole, raise kids on welfare, rely on handouts, feed my kids through free-dinners, etc. etc. etc.

It positively makes my blood boil to think of those kids who did not get their three Rs. If I was the real Dr. Who I would go back in time and ...