I first encountered Alison Peacock when I was training at the Institute of Education.
She spoke simply and powerfully about her school and her approach to learning. Quite simply, Alison advocates democratic schooling. In practice, this means encouraging – and teaching – children to take responsibility for their own learning. It requires ambition, trust in her teachers and a whole school approach. For example, mixed ability teaching in which children choose the level of challenge they want to take on. To begin with, they may aim too high or too low. But eventually, they push themselves: children who are motivated by their own learning don’t want to tread water. As Tanya Byron, author of the government review on children’s safety in a digital world, pointed out, no child playing video games wants to stay at Level One.
Her school, the Wroxham School, seems a happy, slightly mad and unorthodox place, with a stationary motorbike on which children read, a double decker bus that serves as a library (she bought it on ebay). But it is also a national teaching school and Alison spoke at the CBI conference and is listened to by the high and mighty.
As I can’t help myself, I asked her two questions. Firstly, how can I get to work for her? And secondly, what happens when the children get to secondary schools, where democracy doesn’t go down well with teachers? She thought for a moment, then said, “We just have to prepare them in the best way we can.”
I met a few of her colleagues at a course last year. The man who was running the course began by quite modestly pointing out that with six Level 6 pupils in his class, he must be doing something right. I’m not a huge fan of Level 6, but liked what he had to say about his language-rich classroom and his uncompromising ambition for his children. I won’t dwell on tne details (many of which escaped my tired attention) but it felt such a good, optimistic and humane approach.
The men on the course were young, articulate and passionate teachers, excited about their literacy. What made them stand out was the depth of intellectual discussion: this felt more like a postgraduate seminar than staffroom chatter.
They blog, they use videos, they lob gothic fiction, Pope and Shelley at their children. They encourage their children to indulge in a literary form of ‘planking’ – “Caught you reading” – in which children have themselves photographed reading in unusual but (depending on the title of their books) appropriate locations. A bed in a furniture showroom, for example. It just sounds like such fun in their world of teaching (I shamelessly used this last year).
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that they teach at The Wroxham School. They invited me to observe their lessons: I was delighted but have, as yet, been too tired and busy to go. Here’s a taste of their curriculum.
One man (Steve Davy, Year Four Teacher) offered me a parting shot. “Keep the faith, brother,” he called out to me, with a smile and wave to send me out into the world of teaching. I am trying to, brother, I am trying to.