Arriving at St. Silas Primary in Blackburn (for the Slow Education Network Event last week) feels more like approaching an art gallery than a school. Huge glass windows display a line of woollen and collaged habitats and an intriguing glimpse of work going on behind, layers of classrooms like a hive. For a building housing so much activity, there is a noticeable calm about the whole. The huge entrance is scattered with brightly coloured seating giving an informal air. As I arrive, a large group of parents sit chatting; they have come along for one of the schools regular group sessions in the school canteen.
At St. Silas, the whole building has been designed with small group learning in mind. In an effort to bring the child led learning of the Foundation Stage up through the whole school, classrooms are set in zones, the maths area, writing area and role play areas previously confined to the Early Years are duplicated in every year group here. It is clear that the children are enjoying this approach. Chatter is purposeful and the pupils are keen to show off the different ‘challenges’ they have been set for independent completion.
Teachers and support staff work at tables or on the carpet with small groups; there is a distinct move away from whole class delivery. A fellow visitor points out the fact that adults are, as a result, working on a physical level with the children, which lends a collaborative feel to the lessons. The children themselves seem confident and enthusiastic; there is a buzz in each classroom. Children are becoming team players: one young lad explains to me that if he is stuck, he asks his friend who is ‘dead good at computers’. Other children are equally aware of their own and their peers’ strengths and which ones to ask for assistance, something that seems to me a far more realistic model for future workplace behaviours than a purely ‘top-down’ knowledge stream.
My first feeling as I move round the school is one of relief and optimism. Having always worked in this way in my first decade of teaching, I was beginning to lose hope that people still believed in such practice. Since relocating to a different part of the country, the schools I have worked in, whilst excellent in different ways, have not had children’s independent learning skills as a key focus.
Later, I am left with questions about how this type of practise, and the ideals of Slow Education generally, can possibly flourish within the constraints of the current, and upcoming curriculum demands placed on schools. The Head of St. Silas explained that some subjects are still taught discretely in order to cover all content. The children still have their ability groups, something the school has experimented with, and they still have their individual targets to meet. Many of the challenges set for the children have clear links to their year group’s learning objectives, as you would expect. Year six have started a brave new move towards self-directed topic work and it will be fascinating to see how the hugely enthusiastic staff balance this with the demands of SPAG tests and other end of year assessments.
I wonder whether, when group work is used in this way, the bulk of the teacher’s time is used to hone core skills in maths and literacy and, if so, how much of the children’s adult supported time is spent refining skills in art or DT. I can imagine it being a tricky balancing act. Carrying out a science investigation with a small group clearly leads to better opportunities for questioning and involvement for individuals. Repeating an experiment several times, once with each group, would be ideal but would take all day. Themed days help meet some of that need but only a much less rigid set of tested objectives would free the appropriate amount of time to cover each.
Space at St. Silas is incredibly well used, ‘cupboards’ in corridors open into learning bays, nooks are turned into role play settings. Impressively, the classrooms are well stocked with lap tops and tablets meaning that children can turn to these as a natural resource tool. No more queuing up for the ICT suite or forcing online learning into an unnatural hour-long slot as pre booked on a timetable. Of course, like any school there is a limited amount of flexibility available with larger spaces – PE in the hall has to be planned in and music lessons are taught to a whole class by a music service. Certain activities are then still time limited and must take place at set hours on set days.
I wondered also what flexibility there might be for a child so enthused by one of that week’s challenges that they wanted to spend the whole week focusing on just that one task. The classrooms are set up in such a way that it would be entirely possible for a keen mathematician to spend a whole week exploring a new concept. A child excited by their art challenge would have the physical space to take their preliminary collage off into a huge piece. Here would be truly deep and Slow learning in practise – but, of course, at the expense of other subjects over that time.
Not for the first time, I was left with the conviction that, in a desire to ensure a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum which also ensures that children meet expected targets for certain subjects, the objectives that each child must cover are too many. The ‘value’ placed on the study of certain subjects is still heavily loaded. Children who are becoming increasingly independent learners are, to a point, having to be coaxed down lines of enquiry that tie in with the learning objectives required of them, as much as the skills they need.
The staff at St Silas are refreshingly determined to do what they feel is right for children even if this means going against what is now the norm. If only dynamic professionals such as these were being given far more freedom to experiment with the content as well as the delivery methods of their curriculum.