Visit with Danish students to St Paul's Way Trust school

‘… so we are going to visit an English school … Boring! But the architecture and the way of teaching was really interesting. You can send your kids there, if you should happen to have any.’ Danish student from Viborg Gymnasium & HF

Within minutes of meeting our Danish guests, Solveig and Jørgen, teachers from the Viborg Gymnasium & HF, I heard the words Seeland (Sjælland[ˈɕɛˌlænˀ]) and Jutland (Jylland [ˈjyl.anˁ] and was back in The Killing - large skies, tense horizons and the inscrutable silence of Sara Lund.  Their school is in Viborg, Jutland and together with a large gang of 30 of their students (approximately at 6th from level, and three of us Thinking Writing people) we descended on St Paul’s Way Trust, a secondary school in Tower Hamlets, East London. After hours of Scandinavian drama I thought I’d acquired a hint of passive Danish. As it turned out, the only words I recalled were ‘hej!’ (which seems to mean everything from hi, bye, alright) ‘kaffe,’ and ‘mor’ (I love its bovine vowels).  So I could say, ‘Hej mor!, kaffe?’ In sharp contrast, the Danish sixth formers were mostly confident, fluent English speakers who took part in a 6th form English class on a novel they’d never read (Jane Eyre) about which they wrote a poem in English.

The learning environment

‘My first impression … was that the architecture and the idea about teaching was very Danish. The big open spaces, the very well lit rooms …’ Emil

How environments affect the teaching and learning that takes place was visibly at the centre of the design of St Paul’s Way. No corridors separating rows of classrooms, instead large communal spaces where students could meet, and classrooms with a sliding fourth wall so that the teaching (and student) performances could be seen by all. Other recessed and open spaces with teaching going on, and offices with glass walls, create an environment in which nothing is hidden. You would think it would be deafening, hearing all this teaching and learning, but it just seemed relaxed and normal. Roving staff could also be called in as they roved, for any additional support. Interesting to note one of the teachers' comments, given recent discussion on cuts to capital projects for schools, that that this kind of design, driven by the needs of learners, was very much a product of the last Labour government.

One of the students from Denmark observed:

‘I am surprised by the discipline of their children – their dedication may not always be seen in Danish classrooms. I do wonder if the greater idea behind the very open and public classrooms is to indoctrinate constant surveillance into the younger students minds, seeing as London resembles quite the big brother metropolis. This troubles me a bit.’

The teaching

‘…there are about a 1,000 students, they are very different from us in Denmark. They wear school uniforms and are very quiet.’ Camilla

Like our Danish guests I was surprised at how calm and measured the class of year 7 students were, as they tackled and decoded a murder mystery as part of their English class.

Despite the distractions of 30 observers, the teacher kept them on task with great skill. The groups rattled through the activities, but didn’t quite have time to complete the reflection activity. I did wonder about how you would cope if you had some kind of disability or learning difficulty. I can only guess that if you were fortunate to have a support teacher, you would probably be working separately on parallel tasks, as there is no way you would have been able to keep up with the activities or be part of the groups.

An obvious difference for our guests was the requirement to wear school uniforms:

‘My first impression was how boring it must be to wear the same clothes all the time, but I see the cleverness behind it. The kids seem so happy and respectful… The overall atmosphere is positive, polite and anything but private. The classrooms are open for it to not feel like a prison, but also so the teachers won’t yell too loud.’ Laura

The last part of the day was to participate in a sixth form English class, taught by Richard Marshall. Initially his sixth formers huddled in a corner. With great expertise we were pulled into the novel, and using only a few extracts from a chapter (Resurgam), we began to build our own rich and textured understanding of its themes, culminating in each of us writing a poem (with a few brave recitations). Even allowing for the fact that in Denmark most people start learning English at the age of four, and American and English TV programmes are not dubbed, it was still impressive how they took the class in their strides:

‘ … we were met by wonderful teachers, especially the way they teach writing essays … you really got to let the fantasy work, but still focused on the subject.’ Andreas

‘… we actually paid attention in class.’ Signe

The final activity was to write a postcard (the source of the quotes) to a friend telling them about the school; and the poems will appear at a later date. I wonder, now that they are back in Viborg, what they remember from their visit to London and the St Paul’s Way Trust?

st paul's way trust