In Search of the Perfect School

“For an alternative school you are very structured”, were the words of one of our visitors. “The children have a lot of freedom, don’t you think they might need more structure?” was the contrary view of someone else. Too much freedom, not enough freedom, too much structure, not enough structure, too much direction, not enough direction, too much, too little, too this, too that… These have been the opposing views that I’ve heard from some of our guests coming and going at Inwoods Small School over the years, and so at the first opportunity I packed them into my suitcase, along with my InterRail Pass, and headed off into the alternative educational landscape of Europe. My aim, to find out if there was a context to these statements, or - dare I admit it - if there was a place out there where structure, freedom, direction, discipline are not too much or too little, but just about right?

And so began my ‘Goldilocks’ investigation of schools in Germany, France and Spain. It is important to note that I visited schools that had been highly recommended, did not use rewards and punishment, and had been running for some years. Prestigious pedagogues such as Piaget, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and others were heavily quoted on their websites. I felt very privileged to be welcomed into these well thought-out and caring educational places.

‘It takes a village to raise a child’, so my first stop was a whole village in the centre of Germany that had been bought by a group of pioneering folk and converted into a community which supported the learning of the children attending the village School House. The children had no structured ‘lessons’ but rather rooms to explore, with some specific child-appropriate materials to engage with. If they were feeling adventurous, they could also head off to ‘decentralised learning places’ in the village: the bakery, pottery, farm, sport’s hall, community kitchen, café, etc. where learning could be supported in the context of the hands-on experiences of life surrounding them. The invitation was there, but what actually happened was different and largely dependent on which friend was at the School House that day, what playful ideas were arising in that moment, which adult had popped their head in the door and announced, “I’m here, and available”. The School House and surrounding playground were buzzing with children engaged in what they wanted to do, with or without the available adult, while the rest of the village went about its business without them.

While enroute to my next destination I pondered the word ‘invitation’. It seems in the village School House, simply knowing that one can enter and learn from the skills of others beyond its walls, is not enough. A missing key element is relationship. The ‘invitation’ needs a friendly face, a smile, a contact that is beyond knowledge, skill and expertise. The child needs to feel the adults’ interest in him, the non-judgemental acceptance of who he is whatever his personality, then the particular skill of the adult can reveal itself and the flame of interest can be awakened.

The next stop was further south in a terraced house of a suburban cityscape; a democratic school in which the children and adults decide together, through a voting system, all the rules in terms of behaviour and structure. The children are given equal say in what, when, how, where and with whom they want to learn. My visit was dependent on their vote. Teachers with specific skills would come on different days and there was the choice to join their ‘class’ or not. I chose to quietly observe their cooking session, they chose (to my disappointment) not to offer me a taste of their sweet baked produce… A mixed age of children played at length with great collaboration and creativity in a dusty courtyard. Unless they were with a teacher who was ‘teaching’ something, that day the children made dens, constructed with bricks, and challenged their bodies with lifting and throwing outdoor objects.

Does the democratic voting system rely too much on the weight and influence of numbers to steer individual action? How much importance does it give to the personal opinions of the child rather than another kind of intelligence? What is that intelligence? History has shown that there is so much corruption and destruction in the world whether it be from following the trends of the masses, or accepting the authority of the few; can schools also nurture an awareness of these blind movements that are already at play in our growing relationships with our peers, our parents, and our teachers? From this awareness the intelligence of sensitivity can blossom, bringing about independent compassionate action rather than the need to follow others?

The third stop was a teacher’s dream school house. Still in Germany, this place contained every possible piece of educational equipment, from toddler to end of secondary age, beautifully and invitingly arranged both indoors and out. This was not a democratic school, the reason given was so as not to “burden them”(the pupils), however the children’s views were said to be always considered. Many interventions by an adult were also considered a burden, so as well as there being no rewards and punishments, there was also no encouragement, no correction, no guidance, and no evaluation. The only responsibility of the adult was to be there, observing, with full presence, and ready to respond to any requests for ‘teaching’ or help in any way. Despite the rich display of educational items, most of the younger children that day were either huddled round a table on an art project, constructing an intricate bridge out of flat bricks, playing football, or looking for insects. I asked a group of 15 to 18 year olds when they had learnt to read and how much had they asked for help when they were in their primary years at this school? Most of them said they didn’t ask until they were much older, and the reading achievement happened at different ages for all them - from as young as 5 to as old as 13! All of them were articulate, relaxed, and had skills needed for their current projects. None of them had a particular life direction in mind or seemed concerned about the state of the world.

While the dust continued to settle on those well-equipped classroom shelves I wondered about the place of curriculum in schools. The moment we ‘construct’ a learning environment, are we already stepping in, even if in the daily run we then step back? Can stepping back become another artificial movement that divides the children and adults into two worlds? If we have stepped in and created a beautiful space with abundant resources with the caring presence of adults, then let’s include a pedagogy that brings the two worlds of child and adult, humans and objects, learning and society together. We can address what it means to have a meaningful relationship with the world by working the land, connecting with nature, understanding energy, food systems, ecosystems, political systems, money, cultures, and our relationship to life. These are aspects that a young person may not choose to engage with or find out about if what they are dominantly exposed to is entertainment and consumerism.

I left Germany and entered France - more specifically, a democratic farm school. Similar to the village education model, there was an eco-housing area where senior residents were invited to offer their skills and knowledge to the growing young people. There were animals to attend to, vegetables to grow and lots of well-equipped yurts as classroom spaces for the children. Children could come and go as they pleased, choosing to have a timetable or not, to attend meetings or not, but any rules made had to be followed and if they were not, there was the mediation space for problem solving and learning about the impact of one’s behaviour. On my visit most of the younger children were independently playing outside or with construction toys. One of the favourite activities to do with an adult was to walk the goats in the morning. The school had shifted its emphasis from knowledge based learning to simply caring about the children. It didn’t matter if a child didn’t turn up to learn some mathematics, but it did matter that they turned up to address any unruly behaviour; though often the mediation space was frequented by the same children having to address the same issues.

Is not the responsibility of the teacher also to see that the student changes, not so as to fit in, but to realise something thereby dropping one mode of behaviour, one resistance, one hurt and moving on? Are we able to look at ‘facts’, outer and inner, with the child, and see and meet her from where she is? This is probably the most challenging aspect of education but also one of the most fundamental in terms of bringing about any change in society. Kindness, fearlessness, confidence, and thinking for oneself, cannot be taught, told or imitated, but the facts of our behaviour can dare to be observed and looked at in a caring and unambitious atmosphere, thus unravelling blockages and helping us become more alert to those destructive movements in life.

My last school encounter was on a very different scale, though surprisingly still included many of the desirable elements of the other places. This was an alternative state school in Spain for 500 kindergarten and primary children. The school was divided into three age spans, hosting about 170 children on each floor of the building. The place was well equipped with resources, not on shelves, but on tables, on walls, in corridors, displayed in cabinets, illustrated in books, journals and posters. This was not only a school but a museum of learning. The materials had been carefully laid out in age specific themes of interest with examples of use, thus inviting engagement with them. The process of this engagement was photographed, the learning journeys explained and documented and then displayed on the walls for the whole community to see. It was a vibrant, buzzing (though somewhat noisy) place. Children appeared to enjoy what they were choosing to do and adults delighted in documenting and sharing what they were observing. Everyone was active.

What about stillness? Most of the time our minds are busy with thoughts; working things out, fabricating, regurgitating, examining, often lost in words and images. It seems forever pursuing something or trying to get somewhere. Is this because somewhere in the consciousness of humankind there is the belief that as individuals we are not good enough, that we need to strive to be ‘better’, and so the remit of schools will inevitably be about teaching young people how to achieve and succeed and get recognition for it? In stillness and silence there is nothing to achieve. There is not you versus me, or me separate from that tree, or flower, or bird, or idea. In silence I am all that, not attaining, simply being.

While structure, freedom, direction, discipline are all important ingredients to debate and question in education, none of them will find their right place without relationship: without a genuine loving connection that awakens interest in life and what it needs; that values sensitivity as part of intelligence, not just knowledge; that uproots blockages and inspires inner change; that welcomes silence to deepen connection and unite all minds and hearts. Perhaps if schools nurtured this kind of relationship, the rest would fall into place.

By Mary-Ann Ridgway
Headteacher Inwoods Small School