David Gribble

In the Lib Ed posting for January 2009 there is an article headed “At William Booth We Love Children.” David Gribble visited the school in March of the same year. What follows is the report he wrote for the school.

The more I think about my visit to William Booth, the more impressed I am. At first I did not really understand what I was seeing, and of course after only a day and a half I am still not sure that I have understood it. Since getting home I have looked at the latest Ofsted report [2007], which answered some of my questions, but seemed to undervalue much of the school’s achievements.

I am finding that there are a lot of things I should have asked about, but what, in retrospect, has really delighted me, is the degree to which the children take responsibility for their own lives in the school, and use the freedoms they are given responsibly and trustworthily. I kept on thinking they were much older than they actually were, and being startled when I suddenly saw how enormous grown-ups were by comparison. The children spoke to me as an equal, even when they were asking for help, and it was as an equal that I responded. They were friendly and courteous, and very different from the shy or slightly aggressive children that so often seem to be produced by more authoritarian systems.

The relationship between adults and children seemed excellent, and the way the children came to talk to me (or in Nahalia’s case to show me round the school) was so relaxed and natural that it was not until I had left and began thinking about it that I realised how unusual it was. Where else would a pupil adopt a visitor without specific instruction from a member of staff? At some schools I have visited I have had to leave a classroom after having accidentally disrupted the atmosphere just by sitting there, but there was no danger of this happening at William Booth. The children had things of their own that they were busy with, and did not feel that a visitor represented a chance to avoid doing what they had been instructed to do. Even when someone started the rumour that I was Santa Claus there was only minor interest. I took care not to interrupt them in what they were doing, and they only came to speak to me when they wanted to find out who I was, or to ask me for help.

The degree of order without imposed authority was remarkable. The fact that noise was allowed (for instance when a group of girls turned on some music in the hallway to practise a dance, entirely without adult guidance) and yet never seemed to become excessive, showed how well the children understood that the atmosphere in the school was something that they created themselves, and that they wanted to preserve. The way the children helped themselves to the fruit and drink, available in the hallway all through the day, was another example of the way children who are trusted to behave responsibly will naturally do so.

The girls’ dance also reminded me that many adults would have dismissed it as “play”, whereas if it had been organised by a PE teacher it would have been “work”.

I was surprised to read in the Ofsted report that “sometimes time is not used as well as it could be, especially when groups are moving to specific activities.” My impression was that time was used much better than in a more traditional school because the children spent so little time hanging about waiting to be told what to do. When the children came in in the mornings they did not wait to be told to do something, they just settled down and got on with it. I gather there is a challenge for each group every morning, an activity that they are able to do independently, and this was what started everybody off when they got in. Had I stayed for longer I would have found out more about this.

With three or four adults in each class area there was no absence of supervision, but the presence of the adults was not in any way repressive. They were there to help, not to compel children to do particular tasks, and that seemed to be how the children saw them. The children felt themselves to be in charge of their own learning.

In a conventional classroom, where children are always waiting to be told what to do, and often have to perform tasks that are of no significance to them personally, a tremendous lot of time is wasted. Children sitting on the floor listening to an adult speaking to them (‘Bottoms on the floor, arms folded, mouths shut, eyes on me’) are not necessarily learning anything at all. The children at William Booth used their time as they saw fit, and were learning all the time.

One illustrative oddity that I saw was children playing games with chessmen and draughts when they did not know the conventional rules. No one intervened to tell them how it ought to be done. To be allowed time to investigate a game and to play with the pieces is an important stage in learning about it. Anyone who wants to know the conventional rules can ask to be shown them, but to be required to learn to play according to the restricted conventional system is likely to put people off playing altogether. And as children invent their own rules they discuss them and adjust them and learn from doing so, and who knows, perhaps they will devise interesting new games of their own to pass on to others.

I describe this as ‘illustrative’ because I think it is the same with reading and writing, science and maths. It is important to begin by playing, and as you find the need to sign your name, or to count the candles on a birthday cake, writing and counting have a personal significance for you, they are not just conventional systems that adults insist on you learning. If you are obliged to learn a system for addition before you have understood, through play, what addition actually means, you will probably be turned off maths for good.

The folders of work that the children keep must give them and others a clear idea of their progress. I saw one group looking through someone’s folder together, and Olivia showed me her own with some satisfaction. Your folder seems to be something to be proud of.

The assembly that I attended was a delight. The mixture of songs, congratulations on good work or good behaviour, birthday celebration, serious thought with a short time for private reflection or prayer, announcements and jokes seemed to keep everyone’s attention, and even the staff seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Lunch was another occasion where the benefits of trusting the children showed clearly. They wanted their food, so they queued patiently, took their trays away to a table where they could sit with their friends, and when they had finished tipped any waste into the bin and put their cutlery and tray in the pile waiting to be washed up. There was no conspicuous adult supervision, although Andy [Mattison – the head teacher] came in both times I was there, put on music and wandered among the tables, talking to some of the children. Once again, it was difficult to realise that the eldest children there were only seven years old.

The fairness and generosity of the Easter egg hunt was another wonderful demonstration of the co-operative, friendly atmosphere in the school. I don’t know whether anyone sneaked an extra egg, but I certainly didn’t see any behaviour that suggested that it might have happened, and I saw several instances of people who had seen two eggs showing the second to someone who had not yet found one. In children of this age this seems remarkable.

I must apologise for not having time to talk to many members of staff, but what I was doing was watching what was going on, talking to any children who came up to me, and trying not to get in the way.