One size doesn’t fit all! Slow Education at Holy Trinity Primary School, Darwen by Joe Harrison

Seven years ago Holy Trinity Primary School was on the verge of special measures. Teachers were disaffected and uninterested in the children. The children were equally uninterested and many would regularly disrupt lessons, throwing chairs, swearing, lashing out. Unsurprisingly test results for Holy Trinity weren’t much to shout about.

Holy Trinity is a large town centre Primary School which serves its local community in Darwen, Lancashire. Most pupils are White British with around 10% of pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds. The proportion of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals is well above the national average as is the proportion of pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities.

The situation for Darwen as a town hasn’t changed a great deal in seven years. In fact the economic crisis and cuts have probably made things harder if anything. For the school this means that some pupils may still arrive late because their parents couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed, or arrive having not had any breakfast.

Head Teacher Mark Standen recently described some of the difficulties that face the school in an earlier article for the Slow Education website:

The term ‘Pushy parent’ has been bandied around for many years, however, it is the exact opposite, the ‘negligent parent’, that has, over the last economically difficult years, become far more prevalent: rates for domestic violence, alcohol abuse, children in care, have increased enormously. Such extraneous pressures have placed undue strain upon schools and on our children”.

However, Holy Trinity itself has changed a great deal in the last seven years. Walking around the school now the children are friendly and confident: they open doors for you; Mark will often get swamped by children telling him what they’ve been doing or just after a hug as he walks across the dinner hall. Mark talks about them being “well rounded. They can sing, they can lead, they now how to tell a joke, they’re confident, they can think. Most of all, they like it!” The children themselves talk of Holy Trinity as being a second home: “we’re like a family”.

The same could now be said of the staff. A couple of weeks ago I joined them on a voluntary weekend residential, inspired by Matthew Moss’s staff ‘Think Tank’ residentials. Voluntary, but non the less attended by most of the staff. Staff were discussing innovations for the future of Holy Trinity with passion and insight, and thinking about research groups they wanted to set up. All this alongside just hanging out and having a few drinks, itself reflective of a significant culture shift amongst the staff.

The question for Mark, the head, is this:

The amount of children we have in (Holy Trinity) who have emotional, social, behaviour problems and yet don’t display them. Now that’s a key question for me. Why don’t they display those behaviours when they’ve come from schools where they did display them consciously? It was a conscious decision; I’m going to act up, I’m going to throw chairs, I’m going to bite you… All those things, but why don’t they now, at Holy Trinity?”

Mark’s answer? The time invested in understanding and building a community. And this is where the Slow approach becomes really apparent at Holy Trinity.

Mark talks about the ‘open wounds’ that were apparent in the community and in the school and points out that “you can’t just put a sticking plaster on these things”. New initiatives, new curricula, new governments will come and go, but what the community around Holy Trinity needed was a school that takes the time to listen and understand. To challenge, but also to develop strong relationships which can support learning at all levels.

And this takes time, but it is time worth taking. Mark Standen again:

You have to get to know the personality of the children you’re working with and the people you’re working with, and the community you’re working with,… and then once you’ve got a really clear identity of what you are as a community and how you’re going to support each other then, it was dead easy in some ways, to start to build on that and say “you can do this, you can do that, you can move mountains basically, once we were working together as a collective.”

They began with the children, encouraging them to ask “What’s in it for me?” Teachers and pupils slowly began to investigate the purpose of learning and experimented with experiential and topic-based learning opportunities.

They began sharing their work with the community, either inviting parents and local people into the school, or taking the fruits of their work into Darwen town centre to show people and talk about it.

They had bonfires, hosted curry nights, opened a shop, set fire to viking ships, discovered alien eggs.

Slowly, cautiously, children, teachers, parents and the local community began to take an interest. This wasn’t just another flash in the pan initiative: it was sticking around.

Alongside that they set up a breakfast club, established peer mentors, invested in parent voice events, held celebration assemblies, and talked endlessly about community and what it means to be a part of one.

And at the heart of all of this, what all of this was laying the groundwork for, was the interaction between the teacher and the pupil. Through greater understanding of the community as a whole teachers gained a better sense of the whole child. Not just their position on a graded matrix. Time was given over to allow teachers to talk one-to-one with every child about their learning and their experience of school.

When necessary pupils could access the nurture room or any other of a range of supports and interventions.

The eminent statistician, business consultant and a constant source of inspiration for the Slow Education Movement, W.E.Deming said “the most important things cannot be measured”. This is certainly true at Holy Trinity. The stats only show change in the last year. Only in the last year have the SATs results begun to improve, and only in the last six months has Ofsted granted them ‘Good’ status.

But this really doesn’t take account of the real and necessary work that this school had to do. Relationships had to be formed, trust had to be gained, old wounds had to be healed. Time had to be spent doing all of these things and nothing less would have sufficed.

However, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a story about how Slow Education only helps schools and children in deprived areas. It’s also not an example of a ‘model’ of Slow Education that could be rolled out nationwide; a few simple tools and processes which can be replicated to the benefit of all.

What we see from the Holy Trinity example is the paramount importance that every school needs to take the time to know the community it serves, understand its children and parents, and give the teachers agency to respond to the needs of their children. One size doesn’t fit all.

As with the individual child, so with a community: deep learning for real purpose lasts, but we have to be prepared for it to take time.

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