As a teacher, I was never interested in taking up a promoted post, particularly that of Headteacher. My heart was always in the classroom and not within an office dealing with all the issues many Headteachers face. As a teacher, my heart also was very much in the actual teaching – not the paperwork and red tape- the actual real life experiences provided to pupils to help them learn in a real way. Today, 6 years after leaving I still wouldn’t even contemplate a Headteacher’s job, but what I would love is to design a school. I’m not talking architecture here, although that is a major part of it. I’m talking about the ethos, the values and more importantly, the curriculum. I would want a complete an utter overhaul of the education system as we know it. The past 6 years, being Mum to two boys who struggle to fit the mould of our current educational systems lead me to believe that school should be so much more than just exams. So much more than being inside a classroom. My boys’ school is wonderful and I know that they are doing their absolute hardest to support my boys the best they can, but at the end of the day, schools still have to follow the guidance from the Government and still have to ensure they stick to the principles of Curriculum for Excellence.
Today Ive been doing a completely mind numbing task that I’ll save you the boring details of. Whilst it has been boring as hell, what it has allowed me to do is let my mind to wander. What if I was head of Educational reform across Scotland. What if I was tasked with piloting a new type of school – one that I know would particularly benefit my children, other adopted children but actually, in fact, pretty much all children. What would that look like. Well, first of all, I would need money to be no object and I would need the Duke of Buccleuch to allow the use of Dalkeith Estate – just a couple of small things then! Whilst my vision is completely pie in the sky, why not bear with me and indulge with me just for 10 minutes. Lets just say both these things were possible, then what would my new school look like, and why would it be at Dalkeith Estate?
Well, within Dalkeith Estate, there are the essential ingredients that I would need for my school. Firstly, there is a wonderful adventure playground, Fort Douglas. There are walking and cycle paths aplenty, lots of farmland with cows and horses (I would also add in sheep, pigs and chickens). There is the River Esk running through the Estate, lots of forestry and accompanying wildlife including squirrels and deer. There is an amazing coffee shop, beautiful shop, yoga rooms, excellent restaurant and the stunning Dalkeith Palace. The Palace is currently on lease to the University of Wisconsin and sadly, they would have to move out to be replaced by a 5 star luxury Spa hotel. All of the above would replace what we know as a classroom. The whole estate would be the school. There would be no desks, no chairs, no whiteboards, no assemblies and absolutely no homework.
So what would ‘classes’ look like. Well first of all, there would be no such thing as nursery, P1, P2…S1, S2 etc. Instead groups would be mixed ‘chronological’ ages and progression within the school would be based on ‘when ready’ and not when the term ends. Forget terms too – school will be all year round with families taking holidays as and when they wish.
Lets think of the school in stages rather than ages. The first stage, I’m going to call the Nurturing stage. This is for children who are still building attachments with their parents. It could be that they are 2 years old, it could be that they are a 5 year old child who has just been adopted. As far as I am concerned, the needs of those children are exactly the same. They need lots of time in a safe environment with their parent(s) and they need lots and lots of child-led play. This would be done mostly at the adventure playground. For the little ones, their would be the addition of lots of sit upon toys, pull along toys etc etc and I would also have to have some kind of cover installed over the whole of the park area in order that the outdoors can still be used on rainy days! The Nurturing stage allows children to play all day to their hearts content and they can build relationships with other children as well as building the relationship with their parent(s). There would be a free of charge coffee and snack area for parents and children. Staff working here would have on offer, opportunities to listen to stories, play games, do jigsaws, sing songs, do planting, grow veg and make soup with it, but all of these would only be if children chose to do them. If a child wants to spend all day long climbing the tower and going down the slide and then so be it! A child can remain in the nurturing stage for as long as they need to.
The next stage would be ‘Developing Independence stage.’ This would be exactly the same principles of the nurturing stage – child led play, but in addition to this, there would be times away from their parent (hence the developing independence stage). With staff, they would go on walks in the countryside, collect leaves, make natural art, go pond dipping, ride bikes through the forest, learn about the animals, do baking, go splashing in puddles. The adventure playground would be their main hub along with the nurturing stage children, but they would be feeling confident enough to be there without their parents and to be going off on small adventures in the wider estate.
Next stage – Independence. This would be when children are confident to be fully at ‘school’ without their parents. Lessons would still be the same principles – lots of chances to play but with the addition of more in depth learning about the surrounding areas – wildlife, farming, conservation etc etc etc.
The curriculum of this school would be very different to the traditional. It would be all focused on the natural surroundings. In terms of ‘academics’ through the nature led curriculum, all that I would want pupils, in their own time to be able to do is read, write, spell and add (and take away etc), but every single opportunity for this would be done through ‘real life’ learning. No textbooks, no jotters. Other ‘traditional’ curriculum areas would still be addressed but in a variety of different ways – PE would be walking, cycling, canoeing, horse riding. Art would be nature photography, landscape drawing etc. There would be bushcraft, shelter building, cooking, foraging.
The whole purpose of the ‘curriculum’ would be to prepare the pupils for life outside the estate, learning real skills for life. Once they were ready to progress past the traditional ‘High School Stage’ they would automatically be offered an apprenticeship on the Estate. This could be in farming, hospitality within the hotel, chefs in the restaurant, creating products to sell within the shop, forestry, child care working within the ‘school’……this apprenticeship would prepare them for a job outside the estate in their chosen field.
What about the staff working in the school – well, these would not just be teachers. There would be onsite play therapists and councillors employed, Mental health specialists and speech therapist. All the needs of the children could be addressed from within the school – no need for parents to be taking their children elsewhere. Each child could truly have their needs met with no year long waiting lists.
For adoptive parents there would be an extra added bonus. There would be opportunities at least twice a year for their children to go camping within the estate for a weekend. During this time, parents would be able to attend the 5 star spa hotel free of charge in order to recharge their batteries. This hotel would be a child free zone, it would be open to the public also and the money generated from it would go straight back in to supporting the school.
The school would be seen as a family – the staff, the parents, the children all working together. Staff would not be bogged down with paperwork – regular meeting would take place to discuss the children but no lesson planning, daily evaluating and jotter marking.
How would we know if we were successful? Simple – the children would be happy!
Yes it’s all pie in the sky thinking, but does it really have to be that way? Are there elements that we could actually pull out and use?
Heading back to reality now!