Sep 21, 2006

Miles Berry

This is the text for my speech (no powerpoint slides this time!) from our Curriculum Evening on Tuesday, our first of these, although already abbreviated to “Curric” by the Year 6s who kindly came in to help. The evening went very well, thanks in no small part to the hard work put in by colleagues to produce leaflets and stands for their year groups and subjects.


Good evening everyone and welcome to the first Alton Convent Prep curriculum evening. It’s great to have so many of you here this evening, and I do hope you’ll make the most of the opportunity to learn more about the broad and exciting curriculum that we offer at the school: obviously there’ll be chance to chat with your son or daughter’s class teacher, but there’s also a chance to get some overview of the whole of our provision, and the continuity and progression that are strong features of the way we do things here. Having that overview is a core part of my new role, and thus I’d like to share a few of my insights with you, although I’ll admit that with only a few weeks in post, these may be relatively superficial.

I’d like to start by exploring a few of the creative tensions that we as a school face in designing our curriculum, and thus the learning and teaching that happens here. As a former mathematician, I know that some of my most creative work has happened when trying to solve the difficult, the interesting problems, and I think this is true too in school, as we work through the process of finding a fine point of balance between two opposing forces, and find the happy medium – it really isn’t a case of “either/or”, but here, as in the best schools, a case of “both/and”.

The first of these is that between tradition and innovation. At the broadest level, this is a tension apparent in education in itself, where some see the aim as being passing on the culture, the knowledge, the understanding of previous generations, or at least the experts of the present generation, whereas others see education as a wonderful opportunity for learners to discover things for themselves, to explore, to experiment and to construct new knowledge. Here, of course, we’ve found a way of balancing both perspectives.

The tension applies, perhaps particularly, in independent education, where much that we do can be seen as preserving the best traditions of an earlier age, and underpinning traditional values, away from the changes and chances of fleeting government policy and current best practice, through such important components of school life as competitive sport, a house system and collective worship, as well as an expectation of high standards from the pupils: diligence, honour and pride in their uniform. This though is balanced with the sense that schools such as ours can be the hot-houses for real innovation within education, places where new approaches can be invented and tested, without the need to apply to the DfES for permission to innovate, places where things like the National Curriculum and the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies can be adapted and improved, rather than applied without reflection, and places where the partnership between school and home can be a genuine one with the long term best interests of each child at its heart.

I feel this tradition-innovation tension particularly acutely myself, being, when all is said and done, quite an old-fashioned, traditional schoolmaster, believing that there’s plenty of life yet in such apparently anachronistic ideas as teachers teaching and pupils learning, but at the same time having acquired something of a national reputation as an innovator in the field of computing in education, thanks to work at my old school in using the Internet to blur the distinctions between learning at school and at home, which acknowledged both the personal and social dimensions of learning.

Getting a new head is a crucial time in the life of any school, and please be assured that the traditions of the school, its core values, the enthusiasm of its pupils, the dedication of its staff, and all that we cherish here, are things Mrs Kirkham and I will do our utmost to preserve and enhance. That said, this is an opportunity for growth, development and change, and my colleagues and I have already started the processes of reflection on our present practice, and creative thought about future practice, that will be crucial in moving the school forward: processes in which you and your children will also have a role to play. My role here is made all the easier by the sure and certain knowledge that this is already a very good school, and such change as we will see is a process of evolution and not revolution.

Another tension, familiar to both parents and teachers, is that between nurture and challenge. We do care. We seek to provide a warm, supportive learning community, in which the needs of all are met, in which each child’s talents and abilities are given the opportunity to flourish, and in which each child has the space to pursue their own enthusiasms and interests. And, of course, school, and learning, should be fun. We, like you, want the children here to be happy.

This though isn’t enough. There needs to be challenge too – it’s easy enough to provide a comfy and cosy experience and yet have children going home at the end of the day who know no more, or can do no more than when they turned up in the morning, and how, in that case, can one say they’ve actually learnt anything. By having high, yet realistic, expectations of our children, they will, I’m sure, do their level best to meet these. Providing new experiences, providing lessons which meet pupils where they are and then take them on to somewhere they wouldn’t have reached otherwise, and providing challenges: academic, sporting or personal, which encourage a sense of determination, perseverance and ultimately achievement, must be an important part of what we do. It’s not so much about making learning fun, as recognizing that learning itself is fun. The balance point between nurture and challenge will, I think, move in the direction of increasing challenge as a child progresses through the school – for most the tipping point happens somewhere in Year 1, when school seems a little more about work than play, although I’d hate to think this was an either/or choice! By providing this challenge and sense of achievement inside the nurturing learning community of our school, we have the best of both worlds: it is the nurture and support we provide which enables and encourages our children to rise to the challenge.

I’m finding the same challenge now in my role as head: for me personally, the move into headship is, I’ll admit, a step outside my comfort zone to new challenges. Furthermore, in a good school like this it would be all too tempting to just carry on in our collective comfort zone, doing things the way we’ve always done them: “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”, however there’s more to being a learning community than being a community of learners: it’s important that we too, as a school, set ourselves challenges that we can learn through: I can take no credit for achievements such as our Gold Artsmark and the Healthy Schools award, but I’m sure there will be plenty more challenges and achievements ahead for us.

The last of the three tensions I wanted to explore this evening was that between the personal and the social. As a school with small class sizes and a concern for the well being of each child, we pride ourselves on doing all we can to meet the needs, aptitudes and aspirations of each individual. I’m pleased to note that the maintained sector is catching up with our practice here, with much talk of ‘personalised learning’, understood as “a tailored education for every child and young person.” I think though that this should go beyond individual programmes of study: personalised learning must surely have at it’s core an understanding of personhood, which must include some acknowledgement of the person’s consciousness, identity, dignity, rights and intrinsic worth. Indeed this has been an important part of the school right from its foundation, with Sister Madeleine writing about the importance of pupils being helped to develop their own personalities and strengths, and Vatican II seeing it as a special function of Catholic schools to ‘help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities’.

Being a person means being in relationship with others, and too great an emphasis on individuals learning at their own pace, or exploring their own interests, could all too easily deny them the opportunity of learning together, of learning from one another, of helping one another to learn. This has been an important part of my own ongoing learning and professional development, and I feel we must do all we can to provide opportunities for social learning in our classrooms and beyond. Whilst I’m certain that much high quality learning can take place through reading and writing, particularly when this serves a broader audience than the just the pupil and the teacher, and more still can happen directly through experience and experiment, I suspect that it’s only when a learner steps back from the text or the experience to reflect on it and discuss this with others that the best learning happens. Furthermore, prioritizing this social dimension will improve pupils’ relationships with one another and more general social skills, and their sense of care and responsibility for one another rather than merely themselves.

So with these tensions in mind, tradition and innovation, nurture and challenge, personal and social, I turn now to think about our curriculum itself. Curriculum, I think, is best understood as the whole of our planned educational provision, taking place, as it does, within the whole school community and focussed on the development of each child as a whole person. In the final few, busy days of last term teachers were working hard to produce the curriculum leaflets you will see on the tables around the hall-  do take these away as they give a superb feel of the experiences and expectations ahead of your sons and daughters this year. It’s simplest to talk through the curriculum by dividing it into three areas, the core curriculum, the extended curriculum and the more nebulous implicit or hidden curriculum, although this is not to underestimate the importance of the interrelationship between these areas.

Turning first to the core of our curriculum – the stuff that makes it through to the timetable. We pride ourselves on a broad, balanced approach to the design of the curriculum. In the foundation stage we follow the structure of the early learning goals, which provide for learning in six areas: personal, social and emotional development; communication, language and literacy; mathematical development; knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development, and creative development. Learning here happens through experience, through play and in a way which is naturally suited to not only meeting the needs of each individual, but allows for their unique contribution and perspective too.

For the older pupils, we base our provision broadly on the National Curriculum, although there’s no requirement for us to do so. This does guarantee a degree of breadth and balance, and makes for the smooth transfer of pupils into the school, and in the case of our boys, onwards at 11. Although the National Curriculum provides a certain minimum standard, at Alton Convent Prep we go above and beyond it. As you know, we structure our curriculum through discrete subjects, for the most part taught by class teachers, thus ensuring the best possible pastoral care, providing a holistic view of learning, and making for more opportunity for cross curricular provision.

We provide a generous time allocation for the core of the curriculum – English and mathematics, recognizing that mastery of other subject areas, and access to the curriculum at senior school, will depend on being able to read, write, speak and listen, as well as a good feel for essential numeracy. Provision here again takes the best aspects of the Numeracy and Literacy Frameworks from the maintained sector, but looks to go beyond these, not only in terms of what is taught, but also how we teach, providing more opportunity for interactive whole class teaching and extended pieces of writing.

The rest of the timetabled curriculum goes beyond the confines of the national curriculum, making time each week for personal, social, health and moral education, for circle time, for ICT as a subject in its own right, taught to years 4 to 6 by specialist staff, and for French and drama, things all too often relegated to the place of extracurricular activities in many primary aged schools. Similarly, we attach a far greater importance to PE, and to a healthy lifestyle generally, than many schools do.

Now isn’t the time to go into detail about each subject, but class teachers would be happy to discuss all these aspects of our provision as it affects your child. I would though like to pull together a few key themes here. Firstly, inculcating a love of learning is important to us, and I’m certainly keen to encourage a reflective approach to both teaching and learning: learning how to learn is a far more important, transferable skill, than much of the raw content of the curriculum itself, crucial as this is.

We do much to encourage a greater sense of independence and autonomy in pupils’ learning, increasingly so as they may their way up through the school: I’m keen to promote the contribution which information and communication technology can make to this dimension – we’re already bringing the internet into the classrooms and providing some access to the computer room for pupils in their free time; we’re looking at improving the school website to make it the hub of the school’s virtual community, providing more news and information for parents and resources and activities for pupils – do catch up with me later on if you’d like to chat about this. Homework has a vital role to play here too, providing as it does an opportunity for your son or daughter to develop a sense of personal responsibility for their learning, time management skills, and a studiousness that will serve them well at senior school and beyond. We do, of course, take our role as a preparatory school seriously, preparing our pupils as fully as possible for the next stage of their education, either here for the girls or for the boys a little further afield – but the Year 7 transition evening next Wednesday and the boys’ transition evening on Thursday are probably the best times to talk about that.

We have designed a curriculum that provides for both progression and continuity: that learning builds on that which has gone before, and that the children see this, but also that there is a strong sense of moving on, of learning new things, day by day and lesson by lesson.

Most importantly of all, that all the children you entrust to our care achieve their potential – that we do all that we can so that they may “be the best that they can be”.

Alongside, above, beyond and around this provision is the far broader extended curriculum available here – something detailed in the enrichment programme leaflets you’ll see on the stalls at the back of the room, and a very important part of the education on offer at the school. There are many dimensions to this. Most immediately there is the strong provision for extracurricular activities that’s already underway, with, and I hope you’ll forgive me for listing the range of activities on offer here: instrument lessons, orchestra, singing, the choir and our chanteuse chamber choir, ballet, modern dance, fun running, football (for key stage 1 and 2), netball, rugby, karate, cycle training, a creative club, art and craft, sewing, card making, latin and, of course, chess. I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a remarkable range of activities on offer, and it’s difficult to imagine a child who couldn’t find something on this list to capture their enthusiasm. We also have an impressive programme of trips and visits, fully integrated into the core curriculum provision – Year 3 are off to Liss for an archaeological dig on Thursday, and there’ll be plenty more to follow, including residential visits for pupils in Years 4 to 6, to Marchant’s Hill, the Isle of Wight and France: it’s important to recognize that, wonderful as our refurbished and refurnished classrooms and our shared facilities here are, education takes place in the real world. Other highlights of the year include high calibre musical and dramatic events, collective worship led by the pupils, as well as school masses marking the passage of the seasons and the church’s year, theme days, our creative arts week and a retreat for Year 6. It’s an important part of my vision for the school that its curriculum be of sufficient breadth that all here can find areas in which they can excel.

A third dimension of our curriculum is implicit in all that we do, although rarely features in our planning or assessment programme. The ethos, the values of the school are central to and permeate every aspect of our life here to such an extent that it’s only newcomers such as me who perhaps can truly appreciate how special this aspect of the school is. The school’s faith, the school’s acknowledgment that there is more than a material dimension to life, and the school’s core morality is clear in almost every area of our activity. Our pupils are not concerned merely with their own progress and achievement, but with that of their classmates – yes, this is evident in the classroom, but it also becomes clear out on the football pitch and the netball court, and I’m eager to see greater prominence given to sport and particularly fixtures in the school’s life. This concern for others though is not insular to the school community – part of my vision is that our pupils be equipped to make a positive difference to the wider world, and I’m delighted by the extent to which they are already doing so, though involvement with charities, through outreach beyond the school, and through their unique creative talents in art, music, drama and dance, as the Arts Mark shows.

By way of conclusion, a few thoughts on the unique contribution that each of you can make to our curriculum: the education of your sons and daughters is obviously a partnership between school and home, based on the long term best interests of each child, and thus we do rely on your support to underpin every aspect of our work. Do praise and encourage your children, do make time for them to talk to you about their schoolwork, and provide the right environment for homework, supporting and advising, but also giving them the opportunity to take on responsibility for independent learning as they mature. Also, please do talk with us.

Well, I hope that gives you something of my perspective on our curriculum here in the prep department. You and your children have your own perspectives too, and I’m eager to learn more about those over the coming weeks – please get in touch and pop in if you’d like, or just catch me at before or after school. Thank you all for your patience this evening, now please make the most of the opportunity to chat with your child’s teachers about how all of this applies to them.