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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
All my life, from university days until recently, I kept a finger lightly on the pulse of school education, taking a mild interest in some of its methods, trends and problems. Let me say right away that I have every sympathy with teachers, as they contend with pupils who have been insuffiently taught and inspired at a lower level, plus an influx of distracting (and in some ways harmful) smart-phones, and an ever-growing mountain of administration and red tape!
Nowadays I mostly know only what I read in the papers, but for about forty years I had some insight into how both maths and physics were being taught (the first has plainly and gradually been ‘dumbed down’, while the second may even have gone the other way). This came about simply because at my post-graduate university I overheard someone say: Who might be able to help the son of a friend of mine with his school physics?
I said: well, I might... and that’s how I started to coach a succession of (in total) some hundreds of schoolchildren, in physics and in maths, at A-Level, O-Level, GCSE and CSE (not all still in existence now, of course). And I would say that I benefited from this – by retaining and adding to my knowledge – as much as any pupil did!
I only gave it up around the time I retired, eleven years ago. I also found myself jumping straight from a salaried job into a voluntary one: editing our residents’ newsletter for Maiden Erlegh (part of Earley, on the edge of Reading). We have a large and well-regarded comprehensive school on our doorstep, and I set out to feature it in every issue, of which there were three a year. Topics ranged from controversial changes in its catchment area to exciting reports of school trips to Africa.
Then it occurred to me to invite each head of department in turn to write a column waving the flag for his or her own subject(s), by saying why studying them was worthwhile. My special interests, science and music, were covered first but by the time I gave up the editor’s chair, three years ago, I had attracted an enthusiastic essay from every department – and each story nearly made me wish I had chosen a different direction at school, long ago!
I don’t have such direct and up-to-date awareness now of what goes on in schools. Nevertheless, I feel that certain steps can and should be taken to improve matters within them. Something that I’m made well aware of, just by looking out of our front window, is the length of the school day: this seems to have increased slightly in the last year or two, but half the afternoon is still being wasted (unless homework occupies it, which somehow I doubt). So I was pleased to hear in the Budget in March that there will be a general extending of school hours. Though perhaps it would be kinder if this was applied on a sliding scale with increasing age!
Let’s now focus on particular subject-areas: from what I’ve read about maths and the sciences, going all the way up through secondary school and into university, some pupils arrive at each new level unprepared for it. Much time has to be spent in remedial teaching – and even then these pupils will progress more slowly than others, probably, because the missing proficiencies had to be instilled too quickly. (As for the other more advanced pupils, they are probably disadvantaged by this situation too.)
Well, call me simplistic but, with due acknowledgment to any readers who are primary-school teachers, it seems to me that the whole solution is for them to teach multiplication tables and the other basic skills rigorously and early. The advantage gained and the time saved at the next stage will then allow more effective teaching there, and thus, surely, the benefits will ripple upwards and outwards through the whole education system...
Next, may I put in a word for school musical activities – or rather, several words: coordination; self-confidence; self-esteem; brain development; teamwork; achievement from effort; general academic improvement; learning to take risks and to conquer fear. All these things come from playing in an orchestra and/or singing in a choir. Yet unaccountably, music facilities in schools (where they exist at all) are under pressure as never before. I have had the pleasure of singing in choirs ever since my early teens but, to my regret, the opportunity to play in an orchestra never came my way. (Though if it had, maybe I would have missed certain other musical experiences whose memory I treasure almost more than anything else.)
[You might think that children at primary school would not (yet) have picked up the idea that classical music wasn’t for them. But I have just read about the experience of a lady who goes into a school to take music sessions, as a volunteer. She played some of The Planets by Holst (a local man, as it happened). A boy piped up: “Isn’t this stuff just for posh rich people?” He was five years old.]
There’s a vital topic which, as far as I know, is not taught at all – or if it is, then the knowledge rapidly fades as the school gates are left behind: road sense. I have observed cycle-proficiency classes being conducted out on the highway, but I never see teenage cyclists ride as if they’ve attended one. Either side of the road will do for them, or both sides if in a group, and lights at night are for sissies. As for looking left and right at junctions, staring at a phone-screen takes priority over anything like that. If instead road sense was made a subject for proper education, immediately (too) there would be a stronger basis on which to start the follow-on course, namely driving lessons...
Lastly let me report a news item that I read at the beginning of the year: as part of a university research project, schoolchildren were taught the meanings of dozens of Latin and Greek word-parts – dict (= say), dis (= not), bio (= life), chron (= time) and so on, all of them of course appearing often within English words. The astonishing result (though not so surprising to me) was that the pupils started to make rapid progress not only in deciphering English words that were new to them, but also in all school subjects. Some were said to have advanced six years in reading age, in no time at all.
So there you have it, the Soul Scheme for Superior Schooling: longer hours, early times tables, music, Latin and Greek. Oh, and road sense. Over to you, teachers!
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