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Tag: buildings

Striving for the top in the old classrooms


A friend enthusiastically told me about finding, on a visit back to what was once his home town in England, the British Schools Museum. It was housed in a set of old school buildings, not just any old set but one that had housed the first “Monitorial School”[1]

The idea of the school started in 1808 following a discussion on the education of the children of the working poor between Joseph Lancaster and a landowner William Wilshere, a local lawyer and land-owner. At that time it was considered unnecessary for them to learn – it was likely to give them ideas above their station! And furthermore there was no government funding, and very few private schools of any worth.

A group of like-minded people clustered around Wilshere and an old malt-house was converted in the town of Hitchin into what came to be known as a Monitorial, or Lancasterian, school.

Children were taught by the methods developed by Lancaster. One teacher taught a number of the older and more able children; they then passed onto other children what they had learned. The school taught both boys and girls (another revolutionary idea) but they were taught separately. It became very popular and in 1837 the Lancasterian Schoolroom was built to accommodate the numbers of boys who flocked there to learn. Over time additional classrooms have been added to the site including the Infants’ and Girls’ school.

The site is now extremely important to the history of elementary education that it portrays. We have yet to find another schoolroom built to Lancaster’s specification, with the supporting pillars marking the teaching aisles still in place, surviving anywhere else in the world.

The Museum describes the classroom thus:

The room was built in 1837 to enable one master to teach 300 boys with the aid of 30 monitors by the Lancasterian method. It is the only known complete example to survive in the world. The pupils sat facing the master on benches at narrow desks and were taught by the monitors at semi-circular ‘teaching stations’ around the walls.

That captures the model. Older children taught the younger children. The “monitors” (hence the “monitorial” school) would receive instruction which was then passed on to groups of students. One bright spark, an inspector who visited the school had an idea, why not have the floor rising on tiers that reflected the standards reached. He was Matthew Arnold the poet.

I am sure that I have seen a photo of a classroom in New Zealand that was tiered to reflect the standards and we certainly made use of pupil-teachers. In order to supplement the numbers of teachers in a school, the older children, while still pursuing their own learning, taught the younger ones under the supervision of a teacher. In New Zealand they received a small wage for doing this.

I am not sure that we attempted to teach 300 students in one classroom as happened under the Lancastrian Model! Of course New Zealand was small and we might have been struggling in the middle of the 19th century to find 300 young people in one place! But multi-level teaching is common in small rural schools still. There are examples of single sex classes within co-ed schools in New Zealand.

What we have inherited is the fixed views surrounding educational progress and while our classrooms seem flat we still make pupils climb the tiers from one standard to the next. The word “standard” used to describe the levels in New Zealand primary education only disappeared relatively recently. And I speculate that the use of the word “form” for a class level or year level in secondary schools is a hangover from the fact that the students were seated on forms according to progress.

Much that we have and do in schools is the result of previous practice and often is a reflection of thinking at the time. It is not entirely arbitrary that the word “grade” is used in systems that rely heavily on testing or that “year level” is used in systems that uncritically fire people onwards and upwards as year-end ticks by. And the tiered classroom lives on in so many ways.

What anaylsis would we make of some of the new schools being built if we expect their physical characteristics to reflect a way of working as, once, the schools of John Lancaster did?


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Pathways – ED: Mending leaks or fingers in the dyke

Stuart Middleton
10 November 2011

At last some education features in the newspaper during the election after all but disappearing during the Rugby World Cup (along with pretty well everything else) and the early weeks of the election. And oh dear, it’s about leaky school buildings, this is certainly a major news item. But I was looking for some connection between and analysis about this news of the leaky buildings (well everyone had known about for a long time) and the “new” spending on schools buildings announced earlier.

The general community has huge issues with leaky homes, crowded out of the limelight currently by leaky ships, earthquakes and game shows such as the Rugby World Cup and the Election. The Education Community also has its leaky home problems estimated to cost about $1.2 billion but we know how these dramas unfold exponentially.

At the same time the great number of schools built in the 1950’s largely of untreated timber (they weren’t expected to have to last very long – just to get us through this baby bump after the War) are now surely at the end of their lives and rebuilding those schools will be a bigger challenge than the leaky ones.

So the inescapable conclusion is that capital expenditure on education will be a major ticket item for any government for a long time to come.

And I haven’t even mentioned tertiary education.

There is an incessant call, and rightly so, for young people to get postsecondary education. Schools are working hard and getting better at bringing students through to the gates to those postsecondary qualifications. But the increased numbers of students have to be accommodated. When the UK announced proudly that it would set a target of 40% of the population gaining a degree, a study showed that in the first instance the country could not afford to house such an increase in the postsecondary numbers nor would they be able to source sufficirent numbers of adequate teaching staff to teach them.

But perhaps there is an easier solution. Most early childhood centres, schools and tertiary institutions are owned by the crown and even though the respectives business models and regulatory relationships with the crown are different, perhaps it is time for some thinking to wrap around the extent to which demand for space could be solved by using vacant space within existing institutions. Rationalisation of schools, primary and secondary, might lead to a considerable amount of space becoming available for both early childhood education and perhaps even for postsecondary education. I know of one polytechnic that is making effective use of a disused primary school. With far less expenditure than might be needed for a new facility, adequate teaching facilities can be created in this way.

Why cannot early childhood programmes be offered out of empty classrooms in priory schools? Age is not a factor – children tend to live with people relatively close to their own age. What is significant about the fifth birthday that requires huge separation of the two groups?

Perhaps underutilised secondary space could be used for tertiary instruction or even a university class. Waikato University started life in a high school.

Let’s find some of that inventive thinking that got New Zealand through previous depressions and wars.

Of course, I can hear you reaching for your pens, keyboards and finger tips (this for the iPad users). There might be a fallacy in all this. The pressure of numbers is perhaps not in the same places as the pressure for space. In a clearly divided community such as we have, half the population lives together and has a low fertility rate while the other half lives together and have a high fertility rate. Education facilities under pressure for space are usually therefore cluster. That is where transport comes in.

The old principle that there are certain distances children can be expected to travel to schools is made a mockery of in communities where phalanxes of military style vehicles deliver children to the gate each morning and wait to ensure that the little ones have the strength to reach the building while in other communities children habitually walk!  One rule cannot be fair to all and perhaps in some communities, schools need to be closer to each other than in other communities.

The old notion of what a school is and where a school should be needs looking at. It is time to consider education centres that meet the needs of all three sectors, that utilise plant to the maximum, that see a flow of people entering for different purposes at different times. It shouldn’t be beyond our wit to devise ways of doing this without compromising safety and without meeting the specialised nature of the educational intervention that a student’s age and progress demands.

The structure of sectors needs rethinking. Does it make sense to build a senior secondary school that is not integrated with tertiary programmes? There is some exciting action planned in this area.

Perhaps it’s time to ask whether every leaky school building needs to be repaired, whether the number of schools we have should be retained, whether the sectors should be made to collaborate to bring about effective use of education buildings. Perhaps it time to ask if we should be structuring education differently. Perhaps it is time…

End note

You all know what muscle memory is – the fact that muscles can learn repetitive action and move ahead of the brain to undertake them. Each time I write “leaky” on the keyboard my fingers desperately seek out the keys for “education pipeline”. Perhaps it is also time…


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