At The New Forest Small School we value and appreciate the importance of academic subjects. However, unlike state education and the majority of private education, we do not believe that the academic side of education should dominate the school timetable to the virtual exclusion of all other areas of development.
When one considers that children typically spend over 80% of the school day involved in academic pursuits (notwithstanding the homework they are given) we should rightly expect all our children to leave school as academic geniuses! That this is patently not the case must inevitably lead to the conclusion that a considerable amount of the lessons they sat through were a waste of time. Just like adults, children can only take in a certain amount of new knowledge each day, beyond this point they will just experience burn out. This will mean they will be sitting through lessons that they can no longer assimilate, will inevitably fall behind with and, in many cases, become disinterested.
What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.
– George Bernard Shaw
We believe that such an exclusively academic approach also flies in the face of all we understand about how children learn. For well over a hundred years child psychologists have understood that children learn best of all when they are active, involved and not overloaded. They have understood that children learn through their life experiences and through the assimilation of this experience into role-play and creativity.
Yet how much life experience are we providing for our children when they are sat down at a desk most of the day only to return home exhausted and slump in front of a screen? Where is the time and place for the social interactions and personal development that will help them make sense of their lives and better able to understand academic subjects in the first place?
All too often breaks in the school day where children can socialise are confined to a concrete playground packed with children, where bullying is rife; the noise all consuming and the energy frenzied.
Is it any wonder that so many children are suffering from stress, mental exhaustion and depression and/or are overweight or have behavioral problems such as ADD? Despite all the best intentions of the teachers, this is often an environment that is doomed to create more problems than it can ever solve.
At The New Forest Small School we have tried to rethink firstly what we want to nurture in our children and secondly what is the best timetable to achieve this?
In no particular order this is what we came up with…
- Happiness – the pupil says they feel happy in school (assessed by pupil statement only)
- Confidence- the pupil is confident in coming into the classroom and handling day to day tasks; confident in contributing to group learning activities and confident in outdoor play.
- Social awareness – the pupil recognises that other people’s beliefs, interests and experiences may be different to their own; they notice how behaviour affects others and can adapt it if necessary; they listen to others and understand what they are saying; they understand the importance of taking turns and know how to do it; they know the importance of sharing with others and know how to do it; they are aware of other people’s needs and can help others if appropriate; they can communicate clearly and work as part of a team.
- Personal awareness – the pupil knows what they like doing, what interests them and what excites them; they know their strengths; they know what they need and can set goals for themselves; they can recognise when strategies are not working and find new approaches when a plan fails; they can respond to feedback and incorporate it in their work.
- Emotional intelligence – the pupil can recognise their own emotions and understand where they come from; they can understand how other people may be feeling, based on their words, facial expressions, tone of voice and body language; they can think through situations that make them feel anxious; they can use positive self-talk statements when they’re scared or worried; they can manage their feelings by focussing on their goal(s).
- Tolerance and respect for all
- Self-Motivation & Self-Discipline – the pupil can identify the steps needed to solve a problem or complete a task; they can prioritise tasks in order of importance; they can get started on tasks independently; they can keep track of information and belongings; they can complete a sequence of activities or keep to a plan when appropriate.
- Free thinking – the pupil can contribute original ideas & suggestions in classroom discussions; they can argue a case in a debate; they can reflect on different source materials and reflect on their own opinions.
- Physical skills – the pupil can throw and catch a ball; can hop on one leg, jump from standing, jump from running; they can skip with a rope; they can complete basic dance, drama and movement exercises.
- Academic skills
However, to be able to properly develop these qualities and skills it is necessary to give real time to them during the school day.
This meant changing the typical school timetable where academic skills dominate… where the only other skill squeezed in is physical education and where the rest are mentioned pedagogically, but have no real time or space to develop.
So, in Kindergarten & Lower School classes, academic time makes up no more than 50% of the school day and the lessons are designed to be active, dynamic and fun. Whilst in the Upper School classes, with it’s emphasis on GCSE preparation, academic time constitutes two thirds of the day.
This gives us time for activities such as Free Choice, where the children can socialise together and take time to develop their own projects.
It also allows us to have considerably more outside play time. Not your typical play time however. Play time at our school usually involves the whole class, including the teacher, playing sports, traditional games or games we have invented together. The teacher will offer any social guidance needed ensuring that play time is very much a time for building social awareness, co-operative skills as well as physical skills. (See class timetables for Kindergarten, Primary & Secondary)
Play is the highest form of research.
– Albert Einstein
The other fundamental change we made to the timetable in the Kindergarten and primary classes was to allow it to be flexible, not set in stone. Our timetables provide a framework, but sometimes Free Choice will throw up an area of interest that develops into its own lesson, or a game we are playing outside is especially absorbing and requires more time. Perhaps a lesson needs more or less time than the timetable provides, or simply it’s a beautiful day and we decide to have an adventure in the forest!
By giving children the time to be themselves, to build those vital social skills, so essential to a happy life, children become self-motivated and learning is no longer experienced as a chore but as a natural inclination. As our last Ofsted inspection report stated – the school generates ‘a very positive atmosphere for learning and behaviour which leads to the students making good progress and achieving well.’