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Last week I took part in a new venture at Putney High School GDST school in South London. With invited pupils from other local schools the event took staff and students off timetable for a day and offered a range of seminars by visiting speakers. We were asked to engage the students with ‘Big Questions’.  For example, my seminar asked girls aged between 12 and 18 to re-write the future of secondary education from their current position of being embroiled in the day-to-day demands of curriculum and assessment. The prospect of repeating the same 40-minute seminar four times in quick succession might seem daunting, but the girls’ enthusiasm and willingness to think more broadly meant that each session took on a life of its own.

My first point picked up one of our Society’s wider aims, asking them what they knew of the history of education – or whether they had ever stopped to wonder why they were doing and learning what they were doing or learning. Unsurprisingly they had not, and a gallop through the relatively recent development of secondary education from 1902 provided food for thought. It also demonstrated that change was possible. A quick visit to radical ideas began with Mary Wollstonecraft’s proposal in 1792 that schooling should be co-educational and punishment should be meted out by peers. This was followed by a reminder of the school’s founder Maria Grey’s dictum that girls should learn to ‘be wives not get husbands’ (in other words to think beyond accomplishments into a more academic preparation for their adult role). We finished with a brief overview of the thoughts of A.S. Neill, voluntary attendance at lessons and the school council at Summerhill. Then it was over to them to throw the rule book out of the window and re-write secondary education for the future.

To say that debate was lively is an understatement; one high spot was an intense discussion in one group whether formal school should start at the age of 2 ‘or you get bored’ or 7 ‘like they do in Finland’. Very good arguments for both sides were put forward, and no agreement reached. While most decided to retain a break at age 11 there was a strong lobby for an all-through system that did not create a false barrier but supported a more even development. Co-education received muted support but was not top of the agenda in any of the discussions. Assessment provided a hot topic with little criticism of the existing system of public exams despite my best attempts to suggest the demise of GCSEs. Testing in school covered the whole range from weekly tests to check knowledge to termly or annual exams but no-one suggested abandoning tests altogether. Equally, voluntary attendance at classes was discussed and dismissed (sorry Summerhill). The importance of physical activity was agreed upon in all sessions with a majority favouring non-competitive sport. (‘Please! No yoga!!!’).

Most discussion focused on the structure of the school day reflecting an overall desire not for the complete freedom advocated by A.S.Neill but for some more space for independent activity. Where such activity should take place was split between time and space in school, or time at home. More free periods, more spaces for relaxation, more opportunity to ‘catch up’ in school were popular. Almost unanimously the girls opted for an extra half day a week, most suggesting Friday afternoon and several wanting (without being aware of) the university agreement of Wednesday afternoons free from formal sessions. Every group wanted school to start later, a few wanted it to finish earlier but most were happier to stay later and were aware of research that shows teenagers’ brains do not function well in the early morning.

Two aspects of the curriculum came under discussion, first the place of ‘life skills’ and financial education, a comment that is also prevalent when I repeat this exercise with final year undergraduates. The second was the attempt to groups subjects together, for example humanities or science blocked into days rather than short blasts. My question whether we might not need a school building at all, as we could all (teachers and pupils) work from home on internet and skype connections was met with horror! Combined with the desire for more free space in school the significance of the school as a social and collaborative space of learning came through loud and clear.

In a short blog I can’t give many details of the ideas presented, and of course asking them to engage in what could be seen as a criticism of the system in which they are so invested was a tough ask. As I noted at the beginning of this blog I hope I left them with a recognition that even a brief knowledge of education history demonstrates the possibility of thinking the impossible. They left me thinking that we need to build better bridges between school / college and university life. Many of the things they suggested; more flexible days, time and space for informal discussions outside formal sessions, opportunities to explore ideas introduced in, but not central to, work for assessment are part of our aspirations in higher education. Equally those of us in higher education might think about how we prepare, and what we offer, our first year students to use their hours outside formal lectures to their best advantage.  Many of our discussions had only just got started, I do hope some of them continued and that those of them who join the teaching profession will occasionally stop and wonder ‘Why do we have to do this? Is there a lesson to be learned from the past?’