Schools were not made for children. They were created to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution and were subsequently modelled on factory lines. They have been adjusted over the years by successive governments to satisfy short-term political needs, personal ambitions and moral panics. And they have been hammered and battered into shape by an often demoralising inspectorate.
But what if we could reboot education? What would schools look like if we broke from history and started again? And what if we created new schools that were not based on the needs of adults but upon the individual needs of children?
At the New Forest Small School we have attempted to create a school that optimises education by re-evaluating the purpose and function of schools. We have asked the following questions - What do we want from education? What do we want for our children? And how can we create an educational environment that allows all children to personally, socially and academically flourish?
Understanding How Children Learn
To begin with we need to understand the connection between all aspects of a child’s development and how the personal, social and academic can feed off one another. Holistic education in the truest sense. For example, quality pastoral care is essential in a school, however, not as an afterthought or wheeled out when a child has problems, but rather a fundamental part of each school day – in this respect it is as important as lessons.
We need to understand the developmental stages of children, but not in a rigid way that expects all children to operate within certain parameters according to their age. We therefore also need to understand that all children are individuals and that it is necessary to value each child for who they are rather than what we want them to be. For example we need to understand that poor behaviour or lack of motivation usually involves a particular attribute of a child that has become negative and self-destructive but can be realigned in a positive, constructive manner over time. This means helping each child to develop self-awareness, self-motivation, self-discipline, self-confidence, self-esteem etc… To optimize education and personal development it must come from each individual with nurturing support from the school.
This requires a collaborative rather than imposed education by creating a school that works with children rather than against them. To achieve this we need to awaken the child's fundamental need to belong, their natural desire to learn and grow, their need for responsible freedom and an enabling, reassuring discipline that focuses only on the rules that matter and is not about control.
Subsequently we can begin to create a school community that is based on a sense of belonging by developing in each child a desire for peace and order because they are valued, respected and happy and therefore have a stake in maintaining a harmonious environment. This leads to strong relationships between staff and students – there is no sense of them and us – school is a collaboration between all members of the school.
We need to create schools that are based on trust. Unfortunately, at present, we have a national educational system that is founded on mistrust from the government down to the head teachers, down to the teachers, down to the children. This inevitably leads to a highly stressed environment where the fear of failure spreads across the school to the point where many children simply expect to fail.
Human Scale Environments
The educational environments we have traditionally created are again modelled on the needs of adults rather than children. Large scale educational structures and classes are not conducive to the needs of children – they are artificial monoliths that do not even reflect or prepare for adult life. Small scale classes are obviously more effective – human scale education where every child genuinely matters.
Small schools will inevitably have less facilities than larger scale establishments. However perhaps we need to ask ourselves how necessary many of these multi-million pound facilities really are. Perhaps they are again for adults and to impress rather than for children – as adults we remember how we were treated and valued by our fellow students and teachers not how great the facilities were. This is not to say that great facilities do not add some value, but perhaps they are not as important as we think they are.
Achieving Academic Excellence
Once all the foundations are in place and the individual child is ready, then their academic development is optimized to the point that learning becomes natural and relatively easy. There is no need to coerce the children with rewards and incentives.
We cannot underestimate the importance of knowledge, especially in today’s age where unprincipled politicians prey on people’s ignorance. Knowledge is empowering so the last thing we want is to put children off learning. And yet in most schools, despite all the lessons and all the homework from the earliest possible ages, only a small minority leave school valuing knowledge and learning. Far too many have become disengaged because they have forced to learn rather than enabled to learn. As soon as the coercion ceases when they leave school they simply associate developing knowledge with stress, boredom and duress. They have been forced to do too much, too soon because curriculums are again based on the needs of adults – and yet many adults would also gradually lose interest if they were faced with the amount of lessons, homework and passivity that most children face in their 14 years of compulsory education.
At NFSS we achieve excellent GCSE results despite significantly fewer lessons, tests and homework – it is not about how much children learn but how they learn and ensuring that their desire to learn remains in tact. To support this it is necessary to develop a curriculum that engages by being relevant, dynamic and wide ranging.