There's Nothing Wrong with an Old-fashioned Education!

I was talking to a woman at the bus stop last week. She was concerned about the amount of homework her eight-year-old granddaughter had been given. “Homework? She’s eight – surely she doesn’t have homework?” I queried. And after a bewildering five minutes of key stage this, and Ofsted that, I discovered just how far primary schooling has moved on since I left Dale School, Derby, in 1980. I was fortunate to have benefited from what even people of my age would consider an old-fashioned education. Our school in Normanton was run under the auspices of the always immaculately turned-out Miss Clarke. She was petite and ladylike and ruled the school with an iron, if perfectly manicured, hand.
While other school heads were embracing modernity, Miss Clarke made sure her boys and girls were brought up the classical way. No trendy educational ideas for her. From the moment the old school handbell was rung on the playground outside, and the chattering crocodiles of more than 500 children filed inside, we were taught on traditional, if occasionally quirky, lines.  Each morning the school, divided into infants and juniors, attended assembly. We entered the halls to the strains of classical music. The composer of the day was clearly displayed at the front, and woe betide anyone who could not read or pronounce his name. From Tchaikovsky and Brahms to Schubert and Liszt, we learned to recognise a huge range of music. Among Miss Clarke’s favourites were loud or stirring pieces, like Grieg’s Morning or Delibes’ Coppelia. It was all about instilling in us enthusiasm, energy and get-up-and-go. And it worked.
And each day there would be a poem to listen to – like Keats’ To Autumn – and always read with an almost fevered relish by Miss Clarke’s ever-jolly colleague, Mrs Smith, her foot tapping out the rhythm of the words. She read all manner of poems from writers as diverse as John Masefield, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. We started each morning with a hymn and a prayer, of course, and to my shame my primary school self never questioned what my non-Christian schoolmates thought of that. But I loved it, and I’ve always valued hymns and prayers for their use of language and poetry, as much as for their spiritual content. There was also the element of everyone doing something together, which just seemed to set us up right for the day.
PE lessons at Dale also had an interesting twist. Confined for most of the year to the concrete playgrounds on either side of the school, or in the assembly halls, our sports curriculum relied upon the equipment we had inherited from earlier generations. Indoors there was the usual gym apparatus with poles to twizzle on and rope frames to climb up, monkey bars to swing on and a range of aged benches on which to balance, all of which bore the marks of 75 years of children’s feet bashing and rubbing on them.
When it came to fresh air fun, there was a more exotic choice. Nestled among the skittles and canes, beanbags and hula-hoops were a set of ancient shinty clubs. Now, unless you went to Dale, or lived in the Scottish Highlands, you’re unlikely ever to have encountered that particular sport. It was a forceful and violent Gaelic forerunner to hockey and quite what this set of clubs, which resembled upturned and flattened out walking sticks, were doing in the PE cupboard of a Derbyshire primary school, no-one seemed to know, but under our teachers’ guidance we would, gently of course, tap a plastic ball up and down the playground around the obstacles laid out before us. It probably owed very little to the archaic sport, but it was utterly engrossing nonetheless.
But I think the most valuable lesson that Dale School taught us was the how to mark the passing seasons and seize the moment to appreciate the world around us. No matter how important the lesson we were having, there was always time to abandon it for a morning spent outside studying a frost-encrusted spider’s web, or a bird’s nest. Then it was back inside to write stories and poems inspired by them. It was fun, but it was learning too, and it never seemed like hard work.
I wonder, with all the emphasis, in today’s schools, on homework and breakfast clubs; with lessons in citizenship and technology; with ICT rooms and interactive white boards in most school; with websites, newsletters and class councils to keep pace with - all the undoubtedly wonderful and essential components of modern education – is there still time for our youngsters to experience the more esoteric aspects of life? It would be an awful pity if, amid all that technology and financial investment, they were literally missing out on smelling the roses.

(Originally blogged November 07)