1979. Coventry Cathedral. Was it a carol, or a song from the shows, or a hymn? I don’t remember, but I do remember the feeling. A magical moment, where new sounds, smells and just the sheer scale of the setting, made such an impression on my 11-year-old self.
Of course, there are several more of these moments, both beforehand, at primary school, and later at the school I was fortunate to attend, itself quite a breathtakingly beautiful building.
Note that these moments take place in school time.
I’d like to make the argument that such moments – these ‘Albert Hall Moments’ – are as important to the work of the school as the day-to-day delivery of lessons, possibly more so.
I bring this up because I fear we are again trying to reduce schooling to a scientific process, rather than something which is deeply personal and human. The ‘snake oil’ salesmen and women promise hidden gold:
‘Follow this Ofsted-approved curriculum strategy’, they say.
‘Ensure so-and-so’s principles for instruction are followed’, they advise.
By depersonalising teaching, and focusing on the ‘sequencing of content’, we undervalue the impact of the curious human relationships that form between teachers and students. It’s as if anyone can teach. Just follow a certain set of protocols and research-friendly doctrine.
Whilst organisation and curriculum planning are undoubtedly essential to secure a basic canon of knowledge, it should never be at the exclusion of these ‘Albert Hall moments’. It is not hyperbole to suggest that a young person’s whole life can be transformed by one of these moments – ambition, aspiration, confidence and self-belief spring forth, and momentum is then unstoppable.
The skill of a headteacher is to pack his/her school full of teachers who are prepared to offer these special moments, those parts of the school offer when children’s minds and bodies are transfixed.
A few years ago, ‘themed launch days’ or ‘provocation’ days were all the rage, just as ‘collapsed curriculum’ days and the like were seen in secondary schools. They are somewhat sniggered at now, by some who see them confuse the orderly march of sequenced knowledge. I think we have to be careful – there is room for both, and done well, special days can provide moments of wonder.
Moving away from education, I’ve watched loads of sport this weekend. I’m convinced that if you asked Eddie Jones, or Steve Hanson, or Jurgen Klopp, they would also ruminate that the outcome of a match is often decided by a moment of brilliance, or madness. No matter of tactical preparations can make allowances for this. Theory helps, but does not assure.
I suspect there is a link here to risk-taking. A day dissecting owl pellets, a day spent learning and performing a musical, an afternoon canoeing through the docklands, or taking children to visit a school in some far-flung town in Eastern Europe, or transforming local politics with a school campaign – I could go on. They all take some serious organisation and could go disastrously wrong. But they could also provide some of these remarkable moments in a child’s early life when they are at their most impressionable.
Sadly, we are a risk-averse society now and it is easier to stick to formulaic lessons which have been given the thumbs-up by the educational research community.
I really do respect this research, but it is not a panacea. Ask any adult what they remember about school and they will often link a one-off event with their favourite teacher – when Mr Bates took us to the Transport Museum, or when Mrs Gallagher took us to Paris. I’m not sure they’ll mention how their Y6 science content built so beautifully on their Y5 knowledge.
Next March, we take 10 pupils and 8 parents to China. We want to take our local campaigns, centred around the environment and the common good, and share them with our partner school there. This may not fit in perfectly with the curriculum sequencing, nor fully meet the requirements of the edu-consultants out there in research-ed land.
But it might just set a pupil on course for something remarkable. Or their parents.
Don’t underestimate these ‘Albert Hall’ moments.
They’re the heart and soul of education.