Free Schools are finally opening and Michael Gove’s flagship policy is morphing from an ideological position on supply side reform to schooling to physical reality. The number of free schools opening this term is 24 which is a tiny proportion of the state funded schools in England, but the media attention is blown out of all proportion as everyone tries to find out a little more about what these schools will do once open, and more broadly what the ‘Free School’ agenda means.
The BBC carried an umbrella story on the fledgling free schools earlier in the week: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14731677 . In this article we read about Alborough Academy, in Redbridge London which is run by the E-ACT group. Those of us who have been following the Free School movement have been quite rightly asking how these schools will be different to the Local Authority controlled schools which they are set to compete with/replace/augment (choose the term based on your politics and reading of the spin). I had hoped that Free Schools could use some of their freedoms to do attempt some pedagogic innovations. Rethinking how teaching and learning works, trying some experiments out; these kind of activities could see the Free Schools challenging the orthodoxies of teaching and learning and offering genuine alternatives, and in the process stimulating a much needed debate about teaching and learning within the wider education community (including politicians and parents).
I was, therefore, a little disappointed to read of the comments of the chair of Governors from Alborough which appeared to offer little understanding of the complexities of teaching and learning within school settings. To quote the section in full:
There will be an optional extended day – with an educational slant – says Mr Greatrex, who will be the leader of the school’s governing body. Children could be at school from 08:00 to 18:00 – and could find themselves in extra lessons after school if they are not making enough progress. “Teachers’ focus will be on high attainment and they will track pupils’ progress in every lesson. If a child does not make enough progress in a lesson, they will be asked to stay later that day,” said Mr Greatrex.
There is some confusion here, firstly the extended school day is optional, but a few words later it seems pupils not making sufficient progress will find themselves (as if by some miracle it seems) in extra lessons. Will they be forced to attend or not is the simple question, and once open the school will realise that writing policies is the easy part, implementing them justly within the busy chaotic life of a school is the challenge. Just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, one pupil’s extra lesson may be another’s pupil’s detention. I struggled hard to think about how children kept behind for extra lessons could fail to see this as some sort of punishment, or at least a palpable signal to themselves and the school that they are not learning as much as they could.
But what concerns me most about all of this is the crude, even simplistic understanding of the nature of learning which it reveals. The idea that within a single lesson a student should make progress sounds great as a soundbite, but learning is often not like this, particularly with concepts which challenge and test student’s cognitive abilities. I sat in Maths lessons as a pupil and often struggled to make sense of what was being taught, despite listening hard and desperately trying to understand. Learning somedays would just not happen, although often a few days, weeks or even months later something would slot into place and things would start to make more sense. Dylan Wiliam has a brilliant phrase for this: ‘Learning is a liminal process, at the boundary between control and chaos’ (Wiliam 2007). He bases this insight on a review of papers about the learning of Mathematical concepts which show that learning is indeed chaotic. Some students learned concepts at the point at which they were taught, others did not learn at the point of teaching but understood after 3 months, some understood at the point of teaching but 3 months later had lost that learning. Learning is only partly controlled by the teacher, and only partly controlled by the learner; it’s a slippery process, sometimes difficult to pin down. The idea that you have to learn something which can be measured in every lesson and face sanctions if you do not learn is problematic for me.
Putting children under notice that unless progress was made in each and every lesson surely could create unnecessary stress, particularly for those who regularly have to stay behind. People of any age under stress do not learn well; the physical responses to stress are about fight and flight rather than thinking.
When you picture the kids staying behind each day, what mental image do you have? If you had a mental image of a group of 11 year olds trudging into a classroom to reluctantly do battle with Algebra and the Kings of England for a second time, then you are wide of the mark. Alborough has two classes, one reception and year 1, so we are talking about 4 and 5 year olds here!! It is true that the spokesperson for Alborough explains that the after school activities will combine fun with learning, such as doing mental arithmetic whilst playing cricket, but that whiffs of gimmickry to me. What if the progress not made cannot easily be fitted to a social or sporting activity? What if teachers under pressure from management and governors to create remorseless progress, simply resort to repeating the lessons of the day to the unfortunate non learners? A final irony is the young children who are going to get this kind of cramming approach would not even be in school in a country in Finland where formal schooling does not start until 7. Surely this approach will see the UK pull even further ahead of Finland in measures of international achievement? Well not quite, the UK lags well behind Finland in the PISA tables. 28th position in Maths in 2009 as opposed to 6th for Finland. 25th position for reading as opposed to 3rd for Finland. Rather than seeking new and unusual methods for cramming even more teaching into the school day, perhaps the English education system should be looking to countries to Finland to see how their policies which counter intuitively start formal teaching much later, have delivered much better results. We need to think about the Finnish concept of teaching less and learning more.
Ultimately what we can learn from this is that the debate about teaching and learning currently underway as a result, amongst other things, of Free Schools, is the need to increase the quality of the debate about teaching and learning. The outline of the pedagogic strategy from Alborough suggests a school leadership which has a rather simplified and ultimately unrealistic notion of what learning is. Their position appears uninformed by any of the research work or even some basic reading of the vast literature about learning which is freely available.
Wiliam, D. (2007) Assessment, Learning and Technology: Prospects at the Periphery of Control, Keynote at ALT 2007. Available from http://www.alt.ac.uk/sites/default/files/assets_editor_uploads/documents/altc2007_dylan_wiliam_keynote.pdf. Date accessed 3/09.2011
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