Just before Christmas I had a long conversation about schools and the experiences we give pupils. Part of it was centered around the lack of experiences some children have had. In most schools I’ve worked in there is no access to art, theatre, music.
I have almost exclusively worked in tough schools in tough areas, firstly in Middlesbrough or Hartlepool and now on the wrong side of the bridge in Whitby. Of the 7 schools I’ve worked in they all have one thing in common. They have all had groups of children who have not had the experiences that many of us take for granted.
I am constantly asking myself the true purpose of what we’re trying to do in school. Obviously the first answer to create Literate and Numerate pupils. Pressure is increasingly on to narrow and focus on the things that are measured, mainly to keep the wolves from our door. I firmly believe however that to do that we have to think bigger, wider and broader.
How we do that is the question? Whether we like it or not we have to fill in the gaps. If a child doesn’t read at home we make sure it happens in school.
In Middlesbrough many children had not been into town (I walked it everyday to get to the station) and they most definitely had not visited the countryside but this in some ways was more understandable. I remember a terrified 11 year old gripping tightly onto my hand as we reached out to feed a cow, they were awestruck by the size.
In my first week at my current school I discovered there were children who had never been to the beach.
‘We’re in Whitby.’
Children who had never listened to the crashing of the waves, never felt sand between their toes, never explored rockpools, never smelt the tangy salty air or tasted it on their lips. I was incredulous and horrified.
‘We’re in Whitby!’
Children who had never built sand castles, collected water in a bucket, dipped their toes in the icy cold sea, screamed and ran back up the beach…Just me on the last one? OK then
I am old enough to remember a SATs writing test that asked children to describe a meal. The mark scheme wanted Marks and Spencers our pupils gave them Aldi. Or as one girl wrote ‘Ba-ba-bah, I’m loving it’
So it comes back to the question of what we are trying to achieve in our schools. If we are talking ‘diminishing the difference’ This is the difference. The difference is in experience, opportunity and aspiration.
Unfortunately creating experiences costs. The bit we shouldn’t be worrying about is the time spent doing these things. If we want writers, or readers then these experiences many of us take for granted can’t be an afterthought. Experiences help children develop language and meaning. Asking children to write without the material to write about, will only get the results you expect. Read Morpurgo’s ‘Giants necklace’ after a morning on a stormy beach and the whole story becomes a much more frightening proposition. (Not a big Morpurgo fan but this story is fab)
Effectively planning experiences and how they enhance and develop the curriculum are key.
Below is a menu of response following a visit to a residential experience. All had been previously taught. The children’s independent responses gave us a much clearer picture of them as writers. More importantly they wanted to write and had something to say. Choice can also be an incredibly powerful motivator.
Experience is not less, it is more. Education is bigger than schooling. The question what roles do schools play in this?
‘Here is a picture of a beach.’ ‘This is a cow.’ ‘This is a castle.’
As a school for us offering these things is non-negotiable. It’s part of what we do. These are our pledges. The list as yet isn’t complete.
We will get the opportunity to…..
¨Build a den or a shelter
¨See a show at the theatre
¨Perform on stage to a real audience
¨Take part in a competition
¨Spend time on the beach and dig a really big hole.
¨Go rock pooling
¨Cook a meal and eat it with your family
¨Pay for something real in a shop
¨Spend a night camping
¨Cook on a fire
¨Visit a city
¨Climb a tree
¨Arrange a journey
¨Share work with a real audience.
¨Plant a plant/flower or tree. Look after it and watch it grow. If it’s edible eat it!
¨Go fossil hunting
¨Have a water fight
¨Go sledging or mud sliding in a potato sack.
¨Have a picnic which you’ve made yourself
¨Follow a map to go on an adventure.
So again the question is not what we’ve got to do, we all know our endpoints, but rather how are we going to do it?
So to steal from W.B.Yeats ‘Education is not the filling of a pail but rather the lighting of a fire.’
I really love the pledges idea Simon. The same phenomena happens here, where we discover we have pupils who genuinely don’t realise that they live in London, and haven’t ever been on the Underground. It is an expensive game giving experiences that take the kids out of their common experience, but it can be done cheaply too. I was surprised how easy it was to put together our own ‘out in the forest’ experience without using a tour operator – it saved us a lot of money and we only needed to pay for the hostel and the travel. Still expensive, but much less so.
Some of the better trips we have done have been weird little free ones (though I know we have a very different range of options to Whitby)
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Thats the thing it is not just because you are a distance away. We have a scrubby patch of woodland that is now overused. Trained staff in beach and forest schools. Plan curriculum to include and embrace experience. This is our major gap. We blag a lot as well.
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