Curric. 08

Sep 27, 2008

Miles Berry

My speech to parents at this year’s curriculum evening, with a focus on personalised learning…

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. It’s a great pleasure to welcome all of you to this, our third prep school curriculum evening. The partnership between you and the school is so important to the education of your children,  and so it’s a great joy to see so many of you here this evening. I do hope you’ve found this opportunity to meet the teachers and view these wonderful displays a helpful one, and I’d like to say a big thank you to my colleagues for their contribution to this evening. Tonight though is just the beginning of this year’s dialogue about your son or daughter – please do stay in touch, don’t feel you have to wait for parents’ evenings!

In exploring our curriculum this year, I want to take the theme of personalisation – a concept much in vogue at the moment over in the maintained sector but, I think, something that has been at the heart of our approach to education for a long time now, and something which remains a touch stone to much of what we do.

Put simply, personalisation mean that the curriculum, understood as the whole of our planned provision, is tailored to the needs, the enthusiasms, the aspirations of each individual child. As Mrs Kirkham puts it, we count in ones here.

I don’t think this is anywhere more evident than with our very youngest children. I’m continually struck by the brilliant way that each child in our outstanding Early Years department is nurtured and challenged through the wonderful programme of activities and experiences that Mrs Corlett, Mrs Spooner, Mrs Davis and Mrs Love and the rest of the EY team provide. It’s such a joy to see how each child is given the space, the time to be themselves, to be the unique person they are called to be – and we’re placing more emphasis than ever on letting the children take a lead in their learning: their natural inquisitiveness and fascination in the world and the people around them is, I’m sure, the foundation of what we hope becomes a life long love of learning. Education isn’t simply about being, it’s about becoming, and it’s in becoming who they are that the love and attention the children receive in Early Years here really matters – it is one of the great joys of teaching to see how the children develop as an individual and as a learner through the finely crafted programme, through our teaching.

Any attempt to personalise learning must be grounded on a thorugh knowledge of who the children are. This comes naturally to us – small class sizes help of course, but so does a culture of openness in the classroom: our classes are genuinely learning communities in which our pupils feel confident, they know they’re amongst friends, and thus happy to talk about their feelings, their work, their experiences. It’s the natural conversations that happen here in class through which so much learning takes place – yes, resources and experiences are important, but it’s when children step back and reflect in conversation with one another and their teacher that learning really moves on. These conversations provide a far richer data set for adapting and planning than any number of standardized tests or objective assessments.

Of course, more formal assessment is important too, and our programme in the Upper Prep, and particularly Year 6, ensures that children are able to take entrance exams well in their stride, with consistently positive outcomes. But marking isn’t about measuring – marks and comments in books are about moving forward with learning, and I’d ask you to encourage your child to look through the feedback they get from their teachers to see how they can improve. It’s through the excellent knowledge, so difficult to codify as tick lists and grades, that my colleagues have about your sons and daughters that we can meet each child where he or she is and take them on to a new place, planning their route, guiding their journey.

Good teaching is a bit like a Sat Nav – there is that thorough knowledge of the learning landscape, that understanding of the best route to the destination, but perhaps more importantly, the knowledge of where the learner is now, and the willingness to adapt the planned route according to how the learning journey works out in practice. The Sat Nav analogy also captures something of the idea that the final destination is something which the learner his or her self gets to choose – the aspirations, the enthusiasms and the talents of each matter in thinking about our curriculum – of course all have an entitlement to the curriculum, but none is heading to quite the same destination as another.

Each child is wonderfully unique – something one sees so clearly when it comes to ways in which they express their creativity. The arts are, of course, a real strength of the school – we are all delighted with our wonderful new creative and performing arts building – it’s so good at last to have the facilities that come close to matching my colleagues skills in these areas as well as the children’s talents. The opening of the new building has given fresh impetus to music, art and drama throughout the prep school, and I think there will be a number of really exciting initiatives in the terms ahead this year, starting on Thursday with a trip for some of Year 6 to Verdi’s Falstaff at Grange Park Opera, and taking in gallery visits, in both London and Paris, drama and dance workshops, a whole school creative arts week and our first house music festival, in addition to our own concerts and plays, which remain an important part of the school’s year. More exciting still is the enthusiasm amongst my colleagues for exploring links between the arts and the rest of the curriculum – language work is, of course, often a natural vehicle for creativity, but the year ahead also promises some interesting explorations of mathematical and digital art, drama and role play in English and the humanities, paintings as source material in history, and an approach to learning across the curriculum which places an emphasis on individuality, creativity and a striving for excellence, as teaching in music, art and drama long has.

Individuality, creativity and the pursuit of excellence in learning is linked closely with individuality, creativity and the pursuit of excellence in teaching. We have, as you know, a brilliant team of teachers here, but one of our greatest strengths as a team is that we can be ourselves. Just as there’s no Alton Convent mould into which your children are expected to conform, so it’s important to me that my colleagues bring something of themselves into their teaching – of course collaborative planning and the sharing of good practice are vital, but I see it as a real plus that, for example, Mrs Bothwell and Mrs Matthews teach differently. They teach their own way. Alongside our commitment to personalised learning sits one to personalised teaching.

One area in which our provision is most obviously personalised is through the carefully focussed support, which many of our children receive to help them in their learning. With brilliant teachers and small classes, much of this goes unnoticed in the classrooms, with teachers getting alongside children, asking the right question, giving just the right bit of advice, spending time talking through ideas from a different point of view. Mrs Beard’s focussed support groups provide, as their name suggests, that bit more support for those who’d most benefit from extra help with spelling, handwriting, reading or maths, whilst maintaining the social dimension of learning, and of course, we value highly Mrs Spence’s expertise in providing specialist individual support.

There’s much to challenge individuals too, and the outstanding achievements of last year’s leavers in fields as diverse as mathematics, Egyptology and rock are testament to how all talents flourish here. I think much of this sense of challenge comes through the many and varied opportunities we provide for independent learning: something really important to me personally, as well as professionally. I was overwhelmed by the care and enthusiasm Upper Prep children lavished on their science week projects and diaries last year; by the number of hands that shot up in assembly a week ago when I asked who’d kept a diary or scrap book over the holiday, and by the outstanding quality of ESB work, once again. Please, please encourage your son or daughter to make the most of any and all opportunities for them to learn things for themselves – musical instruments, sports, craft, poetry whatever. Do make the most of your local library, and encourage them to make the most of our excellent library here too: I can’t emphasise enough the importance of reading, for a purpose and for pleasure, to their education, here and beyond.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to many here to learn that I see Information Technology as a great bonus for independent learning – we continue to make ever increasing use of our dedicated ‘thin client’ network for enhancing and enriching learning across the curriculum, with children learning about finding information, taking notes, assimilating information from multiple sources and effective presentation. It’s been lovely observing children in the IT room, and at home via Moodle, explaining things to one another and learning together in a very social way, that some uses of technology don’t always support. Last year’s Moodle pilot was a great success and we’re gradually adding to the parts of our curriculum supported this way. I’m delighted to say that our network now extends to the Early Years computers, at last connecting these classrooms, via our filtered and monitored connection, to the vast range of educational resources out on the Web.

The independence we hope to see from the children in their learning, mirrors the independence that we as a school enjoy. Of course we are keen to take our place within the national educational community, but we also take seriously the right and responsibility to think things through for ourselves, to put the best interests of the children over and above the latest initiatives from the DCSF.

We’re keen to encourage our pupils to take on moral responsibility at as early an age as they can: to be the best they can be and uphold the highest, and perhaps a bit old fashioned, standards of integrity, courtesy and honour; your support here, as in so many areas makes all the difference. Opportunities for moral responsibility are to be found through our charity fundraising, like last year’s Good Shepherd Bazaar, our house system, with more House Meetings planned for the year ahead, as well as the usual inter-house competitions, and, for our Year 6 pupils, their posts of special responsibility – our oldest pupils do much to maintain the school’s essential ethos through the way they look after the younger children and the examples that they set.

How else can we expect them to make moral decisions than by giving them the chance to make decisions for themselves, in a safe and nurturing environment, even if sometimes they don’t always get things right first time. There are more and more opportunities across the formal and extended curriculum for the children to choose: this can be as simple as their next reading book, but also takes in the wonderful ESB topics, extension or enrichment tasks, both online and in the real world, and, of course, our wonderful programme of extracurricular clubs and activities. Many old favourites remain on the programme including Latin, Fun Run and Sewing, but this term new additions include Discovery Science, Photography and all being well, Swimming. It is my hope that within the broad canvas of the school’s extended curriculum all find something they enjoy and at which they can excel.

I continue to be impressed by just how talented our pupils are, and surely a part of personalised learning mean letting our pupils’ talents really flourish, through the advice and encouragement of one another and their teachers. This is evident in so many aspects of school life. Music, certainly, with close on half the school receiving instrument tuition, and many playing at a very impressive standard for their age: I do hope that through their instruments, joining the orchestra or choir, our pupils develop a love of music that will last them well beyond this school and their next. I think also of our sport: some super individual achievements in national competitions last year, and I’m sure more to come this year, and a very extensive fixture programme for both boys and girls in the terms ahead. The importance of teamwork and of individual effort in sport plays such an important role in the formation of children’s character that we’ve been exploring ways of extending our PE provision for the top of the prep school, and I hope to be able to write soon about this.

My worry about the government’s approach to personalisation is that it places too much emphasis on the individual, and that we lose sight of the fact that personalised learning has to be about learning to be a person, to be a human being, and this has to mean being in relationship with others. The friendships our pupils develop over their time in the prep school will, I hope, last them life long, as will the skills they develop in making friends, in patching up friendships, in getting along with the diverse collection of other people in their class, year and school. Our splendid residential programme is, I suspect, often the place where these friendships become the lifelong ones which will make such a difference to the children. Last year’s trips to France, the Isle of Wight and Marchant’s Hill were great successes, and the Year 3 sleepover was a lovely introduction to the programme. This year, we take Year 6 to Paris, which should provide even more opportunities for culture and a deeper understanding of the French way of life.

I know one of the strongest features of our school is the palpable sense of community that pervades all we do: that we all, pupils, staff and parents are interrelated. Thursday sees our first Mass of the year, and the sense of fellowship on these occasions with all coming together for worship is incredibly moving – I am, we are, your children are, so privileged to be part of such a wonderful group of people – I know they love being here, and I suspect that’s as much to do with being with their friends as it is down to the brilliant lessons that pack the timetable.

They, of course, wouldn’t be the people they are without you. Thank you so much for your continued trust in us for this crucial part of your child’s education. Thank you also for listening so patiently this evening.