I RECENTLY attended the new parents forum at Carr Manor Primary School, where Boy Wonder is in the nursery. I say nursery but by the time I headed home that night I realised why they prefer to call it the foundation unit.
Our four year-old son is only there by accident. We moved house three years ago, a little further away from the estate agents’ paradise of north Leeds because I was facing possible redundancy and we wanted a cheaper mortgage. I’m not sure we even checked the local school. Well, we got lucky.
Carr Manor Primary School sits in Meanwood, a diverse area with typical inner-city variances in income, education and ambition.
Hilary, who runs the unit, spent time in Italy a few years ago. It transformed her views on education and it’s transforming the prospects of the children who attend the unit at what is an ‘outstanding’ school.
Reggio Emilia meets Carr Manor
At the parents forum, Hilary explained why she’d travelled to Italy – and it wasn’t for the sunshine or the wine. Nearly 70 years ago, after World War II, the villagers around the city of Reggio Emilia in the north of the country decided their little ones needed a different type of education, one based on the principles of respect, responsibility and community.
This understandable response to the ravages of war has since influenced pre-school programmes around the world. The Reggio Emilia philosophy is based upon the following set of principles:
- Children must have some control over the direction of their learning
- Children must be able to learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, seeing and hearing
- Children have a relationship with other children
- Children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves
The local context is everything. In Meanwood, Hilary and her team have adapted the philosophy to nurture the young children to be more confident and resilient through play and, in particular, projects that reflect their current interests.
When I first escorted Boy Wonder, the unit almost looked like too much fun to be part of the education system. That’s the point. The children will face years – probably a lifetime – of structure, goals and competition.
There is structure within the foundation unit. The children study phonics, learn about numbers, enjoy one-to-one reading support in the reception year. But the teachers also invest a lot of time commissioning and supporting projects for different groups to take on. The children form project teams, work out what they might do over what time period and then once they’ve all committed, there’s no backing out. They request materials, test theories, take responsibility.
One recent project on the Beatles was sparked by some children admiring another’s commemorative T-shirt, no doubt provided by a fan parent. That group finished their project with a trip to the Beatles museum in Liverpool and John Lennon’s old high school. One day, they might form their own band. They’ll certainly make a good pub quiz team.
Boy Wonder is part of a team intent on digging out a deep Bat Cave in the amazing adventure gardens of the school (the cold snap has halted progress and some of us Dads might be needed with our sharp spades this Spring). He also visits nearby woodlands each week to learn about nature, self-sufficiency and personal safety. They often fit in some energetic fun in the snow followed by a hot chocolate. He always returns home with a muddy nose, like a little bear.
Like his class mates, whatever the project, he’s always learning about teamwork, self-reliance and, most importantly, how to deal with failure.
Above all else, he’s having fun. Lots of it. And isn’t that the point of being four and five years old? It’s hard for parents not to be constantly anxious and competitive on our children’s behalf. But I’ve relaxed since the forum evening: I now ask Boy Wonder about his projects and whether he made any mud pies before any gentle prompts about letters and numbers.
We parents are crucial to the Reggio Emilia way. The Duchess helps out with the woodland project when she can and we both help Boy Wonder to practice the alphabet and count to 20. We read books to him and invent stories together. We build dinosaur parks out of Lego and play tag in the back garden.
In a few days, we’ll find out if he’s got a place at the school and so will stay in the unit in his reception year. My fingers and toes are crossed. As one parent said at the forum, it’s a shame the rigid structure of our formal education system means that the Reggio Emilia philosophy can’t be incorporated into the daily rhythms of year one and even beyond.
I agree but I also know that, along with lots of support at home, Boy Wonder will be better equipped to deal with everything that awaits a young person in this uncertain and often unfair world.
Even more reason to get digging that Bat Cave…