of education authorities, inspectors, curricula and examinations, of teachers and teacher training, that it has all arisen out of some well thought-out plan hatched in the minds of great educationalists and dispatched with children’s best interests at heart.
When you look, though, at the history of UK education since the Middle Ages , what comes through is a hotchpotch of ideas, innovations, reformations and other hopeful or misguided stabs in the dark driven by utilitarian, religious, expedient, prejudiced, occasionally altruistic but often heavily self-serving motives that have led us stumbling towards the current system.
Dividing children - and by logical extension first their classrooms and then their entire schools - by age for the purposes of their instruction is one such avenue down which we have lurched for better or for worse. And, as with all destinations arrived at accidentally, it is always worth standing back and asking the question, do we want to be here at all?
The need to educate children has never been an obvious given. John Amos Comenius, a Czech teacher, scientist and writer who has been dubbed the father of modern education, is quoted as saying:
‘Not the children of the rich or of the powerful only, but of all alike, boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns, villages and hamlets, should be sent to school’
Comenius died in 1670 and, despite the nobility of his claim as we may see perceive it today, the ensuing centuries saw his dream meet with a great many obstructions and objections, notable from the very groups who have ended up in charge of education – the Church and the State.
One such example nearly a century and a half after Comenius is the from the Tory MP Davies Giddy who was explaining to the House why he was a tad upset about educational reform:
'Giving education to the labouring classes of the poor ... would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other laborious employments to which their rank in society has destined them; instead of teaching them the virtue of subordination, it would render them factious and refactory ... it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books and publications against Christianity.'
As society evolved so did the perceived need for the education of young people (although still in no small way driven by the need to have workers with enough literacy and numeracy to be able to operate effectively in the factories and mills without thinking for themselves and messing up the ‘industrial method’) and, over the last two hundred or so years, a great deal of time and effort was put into the publication of various reports about the state of education, the direction it should take and a whole raft of ‘big ideas’ picked up from one source or another to be tried out, adopted, adapted, distorted or discarded.
One such idea was the development of infant schools, something that came about in effect as a child-minding service that would enable parents to continue working in the cotton mills of New Lanark in Scotland, an idea subsequently transposed lock, stock and teacher to London in 1818. Originally such ‘schools’ were not so much about formal education and preparation for the next stage of schooling as about teaching children 'whatever might be supposed useful that they could understand, and much attention was devoted to singing, dancing, and playing.' However the tug of war for children’s minds led a Samuel Wilderspin to co-opt such a seemingly wasteful opportunity and introduce more formal instruction to children from the age of two upwards.
That said, the nature of infant education was far more what we would call these days ‘child friendly’ (or ‘trendy, liberal and soft’ depending on which paper you read) than that being practised on older children at the time. Here, educational ‘pioneers’ such as Bell and Lancaster had introduced the ‘monitorial method’. This was, in effect, an industrial-age educational process that allowed hundreds of students to be drilled in formal ways using repetitive exercises by a small number of teachers and monitors in a Bible-oriented curriculum based around the three Rs (with a little needlework for the girls and some light gardening for the boys presumably to relive the writer’s cramp).
The parallel developments in what we know today as secondary education and in infant education left a gap in the last part of our current jigsaw. Primary education was the last piece to fall into place and, here again, we took the magpie approach, seeking out ideas to steal.
1847 saw a book by an Inspector of the Academy of Strasburg translated into English arguing that children should be divided by age for their schooling as a matter of principle: ‘Every school, in obedience to this principle, should be divided into two great classes - the one including children from 6 to 9 or 10, the other those from 10 to 14; and it would much subserve many important purposes, if these could be taught in separate rooms.'
Keeping the smaller children away from the older ones was undertaken, primarily at least, so that the youngsters wouldn’t disturb their elders. Published in 1871 by the Committee of Council on Education, the Rules to be observed in planning and fitting up schools advises that infants need to be taught in a different room 'as the noise and the training of the infants disturb and injuriously affect the discipline and instruction of the older children.'
Another import from north of the border was the thinking of David Stow in the first half of the 19th century who believed that young children learn better as a direct result of interactions with the educated mind of the teacher rather than merely with printed material. Developing a more oral pedagogy entailed smaller classes more finely divided by age and ability and he suggested departmental divisions of children aged two or three to six, six to eight or nine and nine to fourteen. These ideas were further developed in 1902 in Principles of Class Teaching by a Professor J.J. Findlay where children’s development was broken down into stages – infancy (birth to around four year of age); early childhood (four to six); later childhood (seven to nine); boy or girlhood (ten plus). It was Professor Findlay who pushed forward the idea of the distinct break at age eleven between primary and secondary.
So, after a whistle stop tour of four and a half centuries of education reform and innovation, what did we end up with? A three-part system that provides, at one end, baby-sitting with musical accompaniment starting from the age of two upwards with formal instruction in the three Rs to provide you with just enough to acquit yourself in your station in life without rocking the boat at the other end and primary education filling the resulting gap in between, with children separated by age, by walls and subsequently by location and a pedagogy being pulled this way and that by the various intransigent advocates of training, child minding, drilling and educating.
Is it any wonder that transition, the process of steering children through the messy battleground of educational maturation, is as Professor Hargreaves of the Specials Schools and Academies Trust calls it ‘The number one challenge currently facing the UK education system’.
And the latest research backs up the fact that we are, in all honesty, still making quite a hash of the whole process:
· 40% of children lose motivation and make no progress during the year after transition
· Children who were making steady progress in primary school actually go backwards in the first year of secondary school
· There is a discontinuity between the primary and secondary curriculum, and a lack of information passing between schools relating to pupils’ abilities and existing achievements.
· Teachers rarely identified children's individual abilities as making a difference to the transition process, focusing instead on institutional initiatives, an emphasis that carries the risk of creating a degree of helplessness for individual pupils.
However, from the midst of this mess, there is occasionally heard the voice of sanity. A line from the 1931 Hadow Report states:
'A good school is a community of young and old, learning together,'
And if there is one single line to sum up the nature of the book you have in your hands this is it.
What Dave Harris is suggesting is exactly that, In both good school’s and good schooling there is a genuine necessity to have learners of all ages collaborating in their learning, regardless of what four hundred years of often dubious educational innovation may tell you.
What’s more learning science and brain research back this up too. For example, good teachers know that the best way to learn anything is to teach it to someone else. As Virgil said, ‘As you teach so you shall learn, as you learn so shall you teach’. Having children of different ages teach each other is of direct pedagogical benefit to all parties. What’s more, there is neurological evidence that males who are in contact with young children show reduced levels of testosterone . Spending useful time in the company of young children makes for calmer, less explosive teenagers.
And lumping children together by their dates of birth is too blunt an instrument when it comes to the actual nature of neurological maturation. Piaget’s schemata describes transitions in children’s cognitive development between the ages of birth to two, two to seven, seven to eleven and eleven onwards (compare with the stages put forward by Professor Findlay above) yet we also know there can be a two to three year spread in terms of how far an individual’s brain has matured compared with classmates of the same age (**quote needed Jensen??). Furthermore, male and female brains mature at different rates , with girls starting the adolescent stage of maturation earlier than boys on average.
In other words, where is it written that every child is ready to sit that SAT or that exam at exactly the same time on exactly the same day?
Even the idea of the magical age of sixteen as the ideal time to examine children and so decide the course and subsequent fate of their entire lives is a practice built on sand not stone. Neuroscience is showing that neurological maturation (and by that we mean the process of ‘wiring’ our brains up to be at their most efficient, something that starts at the back of our heads as babies with our visual cortex and ends at the front of our heads with the pre-frontal cortex, also known as ‘the area of sober second thought’) is a process that takes human beings between twenty and thirty years to accomplish. Bear that in mind next time you berate a group of 12 years olds for ‘acting childish’
Doing something because we’ve always done it that way isn’t in itself a justification for dropping it but more often than not in education, the method of ‘we’ve done it that way because we stumbled across it and thought we’d give it a go and now it’s stuck’ seems to be where so much ‘traditional’ practice comes from. The demands of the 21st century demand the best possible 21st century education system and it is for educators everywhere to relish the challenge and re-evaluate every aspect of the system that does not add value to educational experience of the child.
With the plethora of options available to every school as detailed by Dave Harris in this book, from affiliations - chewy or otherwise - to full-scale amalgamation, there is no longer an excuse for transition to be hit and miss affair it currently is for so many young people.
It’s down to you to work out which path you would like to take. And may the 400-year-old spirit of Comenius be with you in your journey…