No more Dick Turpin teaching


Karen Sullivan was originally aghast at the approach taken by her son's school to structuring learning. However, she soon saw the benefits of saying no to 'stand and deliver' tactics.

Much has been learned about the way children learn over the past decades and the concept of rote-learning has been fairly well demolished as a strategy, even if many of us worry slightly that a slide away from traditional learning methods may leave students short in something, somewhere. 

When my youngest son started at his primary school, I, like many of my co-parents, was slightly aghast that learning was not undertaken in what I would consider to be a structured manner. 

The school heads, Neil Hopkin and Kate Atkins, set out a strategy document outlining their approach: “The new generation of interdependent learners are rejecting the bells, whistles and fixed schedules of mass instruction, are rejecting irrelevant, unapplied knowledge, are saying a resounding ‘no’ to Dick Turpin style stand-and-deliver teaching, are questioning the logic of copying swathes of writing in class while being banned from ignorantly copying from the web at home and are refusing to be complicit in a model of learning that is ‘delivered’ rather like milk once was.”

A resounding “hurrah” from parents? Er, no. We were all deeply suspicious of the lack of obvious teaching going on and yet, four years down the line I not only see the merits of this approach – an approach based on negotiated learning, project work, decision-making, choice, responsibility and planning informed by children’s learning – but see that it works. 

The children are engaged, hugely inspired and bursting with facts and a consuming desire to add to their knowledge. My two eldest sons were the product of a much more traditional system, and while they have both demonstrated an interest in learning, they have never been insatiable; they have never shown the ability to extrapolate information from their environment and virtually everything with which they come into contact, and use it so proficiently. 

They are well educated, but they are not eager learners; they have a solid foundation of knowledge in core subjects, but they never seemed very interested in looking beyond them, probably because they were never given the freedom to explore.

Education has changed. It is a vibrant, dynamic entity literally brimming with potential to harness the energy, enthusiasm and interests of children and drive their learning upwards, using their own trajectory. 

Learning is no longer about remembering the names of kings and queens, or memorising the periodic table, but laying down foundations based not just on knowledge, but on understanding. We know, through decades of research, that children cannot apply knowledge unless they understand it.

And, Mr Gove take note, the non-EBacc subjects are in fact those that often help to cement understanding and allow the practical application of knowledge.

My youngest son patiently explained Modigliani’s use of colour in his paintings; he learned about colours through an appreciation of art.

How much more fun it is to learn geometry through design work; how much more relevant it is to learn about anatomy, physiology and even psychology through dance and sport? 

Increasing the numbers of subjects that students study enhances their learning and provides much greater potential for it to inspire and become deep-seated.

Paring things down to the EBacc basics not only undermines many of the premises, skills and learning required in the 21st century, but negates the importance of producing well-rounded, happy, creative and productive adults in the future.

A decent curriculum will encourage children to think, not just remember.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Claim Free Subscription