A Few More Interesting Things from London Schools

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For those who read my March 5 post about five interesting things I had seen in London schools up to that point in my journey, what follows is the second part as promised. Since then I have continued to spend time in the Harlesden Convent school, my permanent placement while here, as well as visit and observe in a few other London secondary schools. During these experiences, I have witnessed the following in addition to those first five I wrote about in the initial entry on this subject.

6. Uniformity of Dress
In every school I visited students have worn an approved uniform. Jackets, slacks, and ties for the boys, and blouses, sweaters, and skirts for the girls are the most common outfits I have seen. Each school appears to have its own color scheme and crest which is proudly displayed on the outside of a select article of clothing. During a few observations, I even witnessed teachers not start the lesson until all students were wearing the uniform appropriately. Although I have mixed feelings about school uniforms having grudgingly worn one in my earlier Catholic school days, I have noticed that some of the social issues American students confront in terms of their daily attire appear to be nonexistent. I don’t know if this has a positive impact on student learning. What I do know is that less time is likely spent by UK students every morning trying to figure out if what they wear is going to impress their friends, something I know American students are very much concerned about.

7. 6th Form Independent Learning
The last two years of secondary schooling in the UK are referred to as 6th Form where students attend what are called colleges. These are years 12 and 13 which are the equivalent of the junior and senior years of study in the States. What interests me most about these is the independent learning that goes on at this level. By this time in their academic careers, UK students have chosen a coursework path which will culminate in their taking A-Level exams in the subject areas of their choice. Rather than taking classes that are heavily teacher-centered with the information being provided them, students in these courses are guided by their teachers on an independent, inquiry-based journey. This puts a great deal of responsibility for learning on the shoulders of the students, whose success on the exams plays a pivotal role in determining university placement. Of everything I have observed in UK schools thus far, this is by far what most interests me in terms of thinking about how we might improve secondary schooling in the States.

8. Gender Specific Schools
In all the London schools I have visited up to this point only two have been coed with the others being either all boys are all girls. This is something I am not used to as coed schools are the norm in the States, especially in terms of those supported with public resources. (It is important to note here the absence of a “wall of separation” between Church and State in the UK which prevents religious-affiliated schools in the US from receiving public money.) What I have witnessed in the gender specific schools, similar to what was mentioned above concerning uniforms, is the absence of certain social issues that naturally come with teenage boys and girls being together during the course of an eight-hour day. This is not to say that things are perfect. On the surface though, they do appear to be better and more centered on learning. I’ve taught at the secondary level in the States for 20 years and I can say from experience that going to school with members of the opposite sex does affect how some students learn. The social distractions that cause this do not seem to be as present in the London schools I visited that had single gender student populations.

9. Later Start Time
Many of the schools I have observed at don’t start the day until closer to 9:00 am. Although this may be because of transportation issues in London (kids either walk or use public services such as the bus and tube to get to school rather than school-specific buses like we have in the States) there are some benefits in terms of student attentiveness and teacher readiness. There is an abundance of research concerning later school start times, particularly for teenagers, and positive learning outcomes. Maybe I’m letting what these reports assert impact my judgment on this issue but it does seem that the students here are more attentive at the beginning of the day. The teachers also seem more prepared to teach, likely due to an extra hour in the morning for personal and professional readiness. Again, I don’t know if this has any effect on student learning. Personally, I do know how tough it can be to start class and engage students at 8:00 am or before as we do back home.

10. Extensive Teacher Training
This last interesting thing is less associated with my observations in schools and more with my experiences at University College London’s Institute of Education, specifically my involvement with the PGCE course taught by my advisor. PGCE stands for post-graduate certificate in education. Although there are many avenues to getting a teaching license in the UK, the PGCE route appears to be the most extensive and effective in training teachers. As the name suggests, students who take this course have already graduated from university. To be accepted into the program they have to go through a rigorous application process – at the IOE alone they will receive upwards of 400 applicants for only 50 spots in the course. (I got to be involved in a few of the interview days which were very intense for both the candidates and reviewers.) Those that are accepted go through a year-long experience where they attend lectures/lessons on campus while teaching at various placement schools. This is markedly different from the usual ten-week student experience that most undergrads go through back home.

If it isn’t already evident, I have enjoyed my time observing in London schools, working with teachers, and being involved with the PGCE experience at the IOE. With only a little more than a month remaining on my time here, I intend to make the most of it and continue to learn all that I can.

Unit next time, Cheers.

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