I think I’m fairly unusual in that I have taught at both ends of the age range spectrum. I trained to teach 3 – 8 year olds, moved into secondary teaching and now work with adults. I also help to run a preschool for 2 – 4 year olds. I do believe these experiences might help me to understand the concerns of and the constraints on both sides of the age range divide.
At our preschool, we use a ratio of about one adult to every five children aged 3 or 4 years old. This makes it possible for staff to truly ‘know’ every single one of their children, and to adapt what they do to suit the child. They can literally ‘follow the child’ on the ‘learning journey’ that they take while they are with us. They have time to adapt resources and activities so that they match the needs of each individual child. (It’s worth noting that the sacrifice that staff make to achieve this ratio is in their salaries. We could pay them more, but not if we want to maintain that ratio. We asked and they chose ratios over pay. Please note Mr Gove that I’m most definitely not suggesting low pay as a model for achieving small class sizes, but it is an interesting conundrum.)
If we assume that the average primary school teacher has about thirty children in his or her class, then over the course of a year it is possible to get to know those children in depth. It becomes less about the child fitting into the system, and more about how the teacher can ensure that the system fits the individual child. Where the class size falls to around twenty (which it does in some small rural state schools and obviously can in the private sector), then basic maths dictates that the teacher can devote more time to each one.
On the other hand, when I was teaching full time at secondary level, I sometimes had upwards of 250 children to teach, some of whom I would see only once a week for an hour for drama. As much as I would have liked to get to know those children as individuals, it was always going to be harder to achieve. Even though I’m pretty hopeless at maths, I can figure that one out. Secondary teachers do get a sense of how it can be, in the relationships that they form with a tutor group, but even then it is not quite the same. (Interestingly, once you get to ‘A’ Level teaching, the ratios usually drop right down again, so that you are can guide individuals through your subject as suits their needs, at a higher cognitive level.)
I’ve been wondering recently whether this is the cause of the apparent divide in attitudes between early years/primary and secondary teachers that I see on the Internet. Perhaps it would do all teachers good to spend a time in a different part of the sector, to gain a more rounded view of what ‘an education’ means? The joy of an approach called ‘sustained shared thinking’, so beautifully explained by @HeyMissSmith here, is something that comes out of a deep knowledge of your children as individuals. ‘Here’s a child: how can I help him or her learn?’ is a very different question to ‘Here’s a system: how can I get students through it with maximum benefit in terms of social mobility?’
I’d like to finish with a question that keeps bugging me, every time I get told that I want to keep the deprived in their place or that I’m an enemy of promise. How is a child with learning needs, or Down’s Syndrome, or severe autism going to fare in the system I am promoting? Are we saying that ‘only the clever deserve to be socially mobile’? Or do we care about the life chances of every single child? Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that the two might not always be entirely compatible.