It has been quite a day today. We began with a fairly intense discussion amongst our 7 project coordinators about the Final Report that each of our national agencies will require at the end of the program – deadline is 30 September, which seems ages away but is not! Ensuring that we are both content with the largest part of what we have already achieved, and yet spurring folk on to further exploits whilst ignoring the little rumblings that each setting have about some of the inevitable imbalances in work, workrate, involvement of children/staff, numbers of people on Project Visits and levels of hospitality – all this is the essence of the Comenius version of European diplomacy (the art of wrangling without offending too many people and getting a result that everyone is content with).
We then set off to visit SBO De Bolder, a special school not far from our hotel. The director of the school, Janet Weima, was one of those special school heads you dream of being able to work with or have discussions with over a child. She was inspiring of pupils, parents and staff – and us, too. We rather overwhelmed her with the numbers – there are 25 of us on this visit, including an enormous 8 from Slovenia. But she gave one of the best expositions of the importance of special school leadership that I have ever heard. She has plenty in her favour, of course – a clientele that is generally monocultural and which values special education (many of our ethnic minorities in MK have less than whole views on special needs education, for perfectly good cultural reasons), and a society where the gap between rich and poor is less than in Milton Keynes.
The school has 180 children organised into twelve classes of 15 each, across the 4-12 age range. As well as a high level of provision of experience, the children get lessons in how to cope in the outside world, giving them tools to define their independence and self control, so they can “stand strong”.
We spoke to Janet about restorative practice because the answers staff there gave to questions on resolution of conflict seemed a bit undercooked, and the school was so gorgeous in every other way that we wanted to find out a little. Janet was immediately interested and we may send her some material to help them put it into practice, and to begin using the language. The children, by their lights, were positive and polite and we felt very honoured to be sung to by children in the 8th grade (Y7) as we left. Janet said: These are children who in every way that matters are normal. What is special about them is the way we treat them and make provision for them. Her recipe for their success was built around deep acceptance of each child for who they are, a rich commitment to ensuring that staff were very highly trained, a recognition of the importance of experiential learning in the face of weak reading and writing skills, and high standards and expectations of behaviour built around clear and rigidly enforced school rules. And, as she abundantly made clear in her speech and actions, love for the job and love for the children.
From SBO De Bolder, we cycled across to OBS Fugelflecht, where we had spent most of yesterday. There we visited their plus-group, a regional class for children who need extra support because they are identified as gifted and talented. This was one of those classes where every teacher on earth would love to teach, and today the group of just 6 children (the groups vary throughout the weeks) decided to teach us. We were divided up into groups of 8 and the children in pairs showed us the work they had been doing and their methodologies. There was a lot of metalearning on display from the children, as well as in their project work books, where the questions of decisions in learning, motivation and planning were all explored. It was exciting to see and it ended with a group of three children showing us around the Languagenut website, using the language of learning all the time, and in English too.
We then finished the morning with the first four of our presentations of our work to one another. I was very excited and proud to see the work that Christ the Sower had completed in the short period between March and June, presented as a film. It looked good, felt like a lot of fun and had a professional feel about it. Presentations from Belgium, Slovenia and one Swedish school were also seen and then we were taken for lunch by a family from the school. Myself and two other participants thus found ourselves dining in a restored late 19th century town house in Vijfhuizen, a small suburb of Franeker. This was a rare opportunity to talk with Dutch children and adults in their homes, to receive hospitality and to get a little more into the life of the school. Homes are always interesting and to those who showed interest, we found ourselves accepted and encouraged and welcomed here as we have everywhere.
After returning to the school, we completed the presentations of work to each other and prepared for a special fete organised by staff and parents, with us as the star turn. Each participant country was asked to create a table representing our school and country, for the fete, and to bring along a game that was traditional. The Swedes, of course, brought along kubb, an excuse for throwing bits of wood at each other, whilst we had Snakes and Ladders on a grand scale, plus quoits. It was a lovely chance to be part of a festival and everyone joined in to bless our hosts who had given us such a great stay in Holland.