James Shallcross, MBE, Talks Education and New British School in Madrid

With the forthcoming opening of Richmond Park School in Mirasierra, James Shallcross MBE talks about the educational challenges of today

James Shallcross, MBE

Do today’s pupils face a different kind of society?

Yes, they do. Society is not only changing significantly but also rapidly. In other words, it is not only the changes themselves which have a major impact but also the speed with which they occur. There is little time to stand back and reflect. When the world is in constant movement, it is hard to stand still.

Many families find it difficult to maintain a work- life balance. Often both parents are rushing to and from work and travelling frequently. Pupils need time with their parents, as the home is another vital space for learning, especially for personal, social and emotional growth.

Modern technology intervenes in, and influences society far more now than even just a few years ago. We chat far more but talk far less face-to-face. People are swamped by texts on the internet, for example Wikipedia, but young people read less. Often, we listen less attentively to others as we are listening to the phone or checking messages. All of these changes, and others, impact greatly on young people’s lives. There are many new exciting opportunities, for example to know and learn more, to communicate and express yourself in different situations and media, but we must also face the challenges.

What, then, are the main challenges for pupils?

Pupils face far more stress than before. They have less time to be with the family, to share experiences, talk about worries and enjoy life together. School itself can cause severe anxiety with the pressure of examinations and results, extensive homework, the over-insistence on high academic success so the school – and the educational system- can reach the top of the performance tables. Pupils too often nowadays suffer ill health, lose sleep, or lack self-esteem. The internet itself provides so many new opportunities but also increases the potential for bullying and other serious threats. It can have an adverse effect on the quality of children’s language and understanding. In a way, they have to learn to read and write again in this constant barrage of words and information. We should encourage pupils to use fresh pathways but also help them to notice the signs of danger.

In general, how should schools react?

Essentially, schools need to be proactive and not reactive. The curriculum, while following legal requirements, needs to include broad- ranging themes such as global peace, sustainability, social equality and justice, and essential skills, for example those of thinking and communicating. It should be broad and balanced, giving good time as well to the humanities and creative arts. There is a tendency in many schools to emphasise the core subjects at the expense of others, but at our school we believe it vital that pupils develop their interests and intelligences across the whole curriculum. Whatever careers they later pursue, pupils must be helped to be creative. Finally, the curriculum must be founded on, and help pupils acquire, strong values and actively support pupils’ personal, social and emotional development.

 So should there be a radical change in the way pupils learn?

The major shift should be away from teacher- dominated to pupil- focused learning. Teaching has to be a two-way process. This does undermine the teacher’s role, it reinforces and re-defines it. Instead of transmitting knowledge, the teacher helps pupils explore, investigate and discover and, especially, achieve deep understanding. They also acquire vital abilities and skills so they can use effectively what they have learnt in real life. More than ever, pupils need to be creative and critical thinkers, able to resolve problems, use their imaginations, and have zest, determination, and resilience.

This change requires a much wider range of teaching methodologies. Sometimes the teacher will provide the initial input, and sometimes the pupils. Activities should be for the whole class, groups, pairs and individuals, according to the learning objectives and the children’s needs. In particular, there has to be time for thinking, sharing ideas, learning from one another, and, crucially, reflection. Pupils have to reflect on both how and what they have learnt. The teacher’s questions play a crucial part, guiding, challenging, provoking, and surprising. In the deepest sense, learning has to be playful, joyful, curious and challenging.

Can education really be personalised?

Almost all schools claim they offer a personalised education, but too often reality lags well behind. If a school is to really help each child, it has to take account of each pupil’s needs, abilities and potential. Teachers have to plan differentiated tasks, offer the necessary support to individuals, and encourage pupils to use their different intelligences and learn in varied ways. The pupils must participate actively in their own learning, feel confident and empowered. Above all, we must avoid labelling children, for the label often sticks.

How should learning be assessed?

For the most part, assessment should be formative or continuous. It should focus on what the pupils know, understand and can do, and make use of a very wide range of evidence, including what teachers observe and hear every day, what the pupils’ oral and written work demonstrate over time, and how the pupils themselves assess what they have learnt. Occasional summative assessment is also important to help confirm how well the pupils are progressing, but it must not be dominant. The key point is that all the evidences should be taken into account to determine what the children have learnt and what are the next steps in their learning. Finally, pupils need constant feedback, directly and indirectly. Effective feedback makes a major contribution to their learning and final achievements.

What part should parents play in their children’s education?

Parents should be a major and positive influence in their children’s education. Choosing a school is a crucial decision, which can help determine the children’s future happiness, fulfilment, and both personal and professional achievement. Given its importance, it is crucial that parents are totally committed to the school in every sense and to their children’s holistic education. As mentioned at the beginning, children need time and attention at home, they need to see their parents asking questions about learning, encouraging and motivating them, reassuring them and reinforcing their self- confidence. Schools and parents must work closely and positively together. In the deepest sense, the school makes its own community, but the community also makes its school.

For more information on Richmond Park School contact info@richmondpark.school

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