How Northern Ireland became the new Finland
“Teachers have a lot more flexibility in how they teach and what materials they use. There is a lot of observation – how are individual children responding to different activities. It’s all recorded. The focus is on preparation for learning. It’s amazing to see the level of writing taking place at this stage without formal lessons.”
The model is closer to the Montessori method, which sees children given structured autonomy in choosing daily activities, scaffolded to build on their growing skills. Getting the teachers on board has been greatly enhanced by investment in training and professional development, says Gribbon. Getting parents to trust the system is the next important step, he says.
Parents on board
“Parents love to see books. Where maths is concerned, they love to see a page full of sums. We post Youtube videos of teachers delivering mental maths exercises to give parents an insight into these new methods. At first some teachers were wary of doing this but you have to get parents on board.”
According to Gribbon, the old culture of the isolated teacher in his or her classroom does not fit with the new regime.
“In our school the teachers are working in partnership with each other. There is also a lot of support, resources and good ideas coming from CASS (Curriculum Advice and Support Service).
Gribbon warns against complacency in the face of the TIMSS and PIRLS results. He sees threats to the system which may be felt in the coming years.
“New teachers are unable to find work other than subbing work. There’s a higher calibre of teaching graduate coming into the system now, and they have great strategies and enthusiasm. You have to keep regenerating the system but for now that has stopped. It scares me for the future.”
Gribbon also notes the level of assessment that is built in to the Northern Irish primary school system. There are statutory assessments at the end of Key Stage 1 and at Primary 7 level as well as computer adaptive tests and literacy and numeracy tests. There is also the thorny old issue of assessment for entry to Northern Ireland’s grammar schools, a high pressure selection tool that has seen a grinds culture develop among primary school-age children. “Grammar schools are still participating in unregulated tests. It adds to a culture of testing that is stressful for young children,” he says.
John O’Dowd agrees that prevailing conditions will test recent achievements. “The budgetary situation is challenging across all departments. Social deprivation is still a barrier. We need to focus on hardcore areas where educational attainment is still low.”
Gribbon welcomes the findings but won’t celebrate until these results are repeated in further assessments. “As the old saying goes; “A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two is never sure.”