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 each night 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 grow to dislike .
Such an obsessively 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 about life through life experiences and through the assimilation of this experience into role-play. And yet how much life experience are we providing for our children when they are sat down at desks most of the day, then return home exhausted and slump in front of the television or play station before it is time to do the evening’s homework. Where is the time and place for the role-play that will help them make sense of their lives and thus better able to understand academic subjects in the first place? The time is hardly at school playtime, which in most schools is now reduced to a 15-minute morning break plus a 30-minute break after lunch with often no afternoon break at all. And the place? – typically a concrete playground packed with hundreds of kids, 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 behavioural problems such as ADHD? So 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.
So 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…
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 timetable where academic skills completely dominate, where the only other skill squeezed into the timetable are physical skills and where the rest are mentioned pedagogically, but have no real time or space to develop. So in the Kindergarten & Primary Class, 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 Secondary Class, with its emphasis on GCSE preparation, academic time constitutes two thirds of the day.
This gave us time for timetable slots such as Free Choice, where the children can socialise together and develop their own projects.
It also gave us time for considerably more outside playtime. Not your typical playtime however. Play at our school usually involves the whole class, including the teacher, playing sports, traditional games or games we have invented together. The teacher is usually around to offer any social guidance when needed so that playtime is very much a time for building social awareness, co-operative skills as well as physical skills. (See class timetables for Kindergarten, Primary & Secondary ).
The other fundamental change we made to the timetable was to allow it to be flexible and not set in stone. Our timetables act as a guide. However sometimes Free Choice throws up an area of interest that develops into its own lesson, or a game we are playing outside is especially absorbing and requires a little more time, or a lesson needs more or less time than the timetable provides, or it is a particularly beautiful day and we decide to have an adventure and picnic in the nearby forest for the day.