Thursday, 10 October 2013

The whole is the greater than the sum of its parts.

Since developing the idea for the school and researching alternative approaches, one aspect of the school that has become increasingly important to us is building strong ongoing relationships with the community. To develop this we have started to build our 'community cloud'.

This will be a searchable database of local people and businesses that are willing to share some of their time and expertise with the children, helping the children's projects have an audience outside of the school and a valued outcome.

The amount and level of support would be completely up to the community member for example;
A local florist may be willing to have a group of our youngest children come to visit to see how the shop works.
Or maybe someone who has lived or was born in a different country may be willing to answer an email interview of their experiences.
A local grandmother may volunteer to read with the children once a week. 
Or a local business may be willing to assist in the planning and ongoing development of a project. Even this could vary dramatically, as someone may find it possible to Skype once a week to discuss a project, or if we are lucky they may even be willing to have a student spend time in their work place. Either way we would hope that by working together the students would be able to develop truly useful outcomes for their projects, things that could be implemented  in a real world setting.

We are really lucky to have already had people offer their support. We would love to continue to broaden the skills and experiences we can offer to the children. If you feel you would be able to donate some of your time to our community, or know someone who you think would be brilliant please email us at

Friday, 20 September 2013

I believe that children are the FutureWimbledon

This Tuesday I attended the Future Wimbledon conference, hosted by Love Wimbledon and the borough of Merton. It was a conference mainly aimed at local businesses and other stake-holders, to share what hopes they have for the development of the area.

I went along, as we feel that it is very important that our school's vision and approach supports and enhances this development, and I am really excited about both the ideas for SW19 as well as the role our school could play in it.

One possible direction is the idea of further developing Wimbledon's cultural offerings, to create a creative arts hub. This would include our fantastic theatres, the possible building of a new concert venue (to host the Wimbledon International Music Festival among other things), Wimbledon Film Studios and the work the prestigious Wimbledon Art College.

Another theme that emerged with MP Stephen Hammond, and then continued through the day, was that of Wimbledon as "Tech Suburb". There are already a number of tech companies located in the area and they hope to attract more such businesses to the area.

We believe that our school could both benefit and support these ambitions. Our approach to education is built on the children having hands on practical experiences, and we feel that the children working with experts in a range of fields, including the creative arts, will lead to their discovering and developing their talents. As well as offering a space for new graduates to explore and try their on ideas, in a safe and supportive environment. By being surrounded by world class examples from across this area can only further motivate the children to succeed.

Another aspiration of our school is to future-proof our students. This means the children being resilient and adaptive learners, but also reflects our desire for them to be comfortable and fluent with the all new technologies. In this way we would hope that local tech companies would share their expertise with us by joining our "community cloud", and we would help ensure that they have a talented pool of young talent to join their business.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

A secondary project based learning school that has got the go ahead.

A couple of weeks ago now, the Government published the list of free schools that have been accepted to pre-opening. It is really heartening to see some schools who have a similar ethos and vision to us on this list.

One school that we are really pleased to see get the go ahead is Xp School in Doncaster. It is great news that a school aiming to provided a personalised, project based learning environment for the secondary phase has been supported in this way. It gives us confidence in our own aims, both in finding like minded educators and in that the Government is open to supporting such innovation.

Their school's vision in their words,  from their website.

We believe that every school’s goal should be to prepare our children to be successful in the adult world.
To do this best, we believe that schools should be tightly integrated into the community, and be focused on creating academically rigorous, authentic experiences that bring our children closer to this goal.
In the USA, there are three particular organisations that have been practicing this for over a decade to astounding success. Their children are articulate and confident, and possess not only deep subject knowledge, but the wider skills and competencies needed to be successful in the 21st century.
XP.’s mission is to expedite this model of learning in the UK, and will do this by;
  • bringing like minded individuals and organisations together through a communication hub
  • organising events that allow us to learn the model and implement it in schools in the UK
  • opening XP. schools and effectively walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

I contacted the lead applicant, Gwyn ap Harri, and yet again, as with everyone I have met through the Free School process, found him to be generous with his time and advice. Below are some of his insights into the process and his personal motivations.

What inspired you to apply to open a free school?

My whole career has brought me to this point, whether it’s fate or serendipity, I don’t know. There’s been something driving me towards opening a world class school for many years now. When I saw High Tech High and the work Expeditionary Learning was doing in the states, I was overwhelmed with a moral imperative to take the chance now and do something about it.

Were you the main instigator? How did you build your team?

Yes. I’ve built teams all my life. I wasn’t the best footballer in school, but I was the captain. I’ve been in a number of bands, collecting like minded people and taking them along a journey. I guess I just declared I was going to do it, and pushed myself down the hill. People joined me, and we created a very strong team. It was obvious to anyone that we could do what we said, because as a team we were doing it day in day out. I just asked the right people, with a lot of passion and belief.

What are the most important aspects of your school to you?

That we will not falter or veer from the most important aspect of what education is all about. We will prepare our children to be successful in the adult world in the best way possible, by showing them how to be human beings. Everything else is important, the way we deliver the curriculum, the way we develop our teachers etc but it’s not as important as our children growing into beautiful human beings.

What did you find the hardest part of the process?

Getting our ideas on paper in the structure of the application in a way that anyone could understand it. I found it really hard that the first application is just on paper. I was sure that if we got to the interview, we would get it. Luckily, we got the interview!

What surprised you most about the process?

The help that the New Schools Network gave us with our application made our application a million times better. They guided us expertly towards making sure all our bases were covered. I was surprised at the quality and rigour of that help. They were excellent.

If you were to give one piece of advice to someone hoping to set up a free school what would it be?

Just be honest with yourself and make sure this is 100% what you want to do in your life. It’s not easy, and it shouldn’t just be a dream. You should want the reality of it. If you’re sure, you’ll get it because you’ll do everything you need to do.

Monday, 13 May 2013

The child/student, our first notes on Visual Learning

Hattie's main argument in this section of his book is that students enter school not only with prior achievements, but also personal dispositions, and that these dispositions can then have an impact on the outcomes of schooling.
He identifies the key dispositional ingredients as:
  1. the way the child is open to new experiences;
  2. the child's emerging beliefs about the value and worth of investing in learning;
  3. the manner in which they learn that they can build a sense of self from their engagement in the learning enterprise:
He explains that although children enter the school with these, they can be changed by the school, and that they need to be nurtured in order to raise achievement. He states that many feel that such dispositions to learning should be used as performance indicators of the school. This is something that we will look to incorporate into our school assessment. 

The personality attribute that is identified as critical is that of openness to new experiences.

"Openness to experiences involves the willingness (and it is an active process) to experience new ideas, to think outside the box, and of not being tied to one way of thinking. It involves a motivation to explore ideas, and to invest in the process of learning."

We hope that the approach of our school will actively support and develop this disposition, by encouraging children to pose their own questions and offering the time, space and access to expertise to find their own solutions. They will have the time to fully explore the ideas that interest them, and as they will have chosen their path we believe they will be more invested in the process. As a staff we will be there to support the students in linking their time and effort to the learning they are achieving, making this connection explicit.


In the book they also identify that by the time a child enters school there have been a range of factors that have played a "major role in generating subsequent differences in school-based achievement" including prior achievement and lack of academic success. As a school, we should be looking into what we can offer to support these very young families in creating strong home learning environments. We feel very committed to the idea of the school reaching the community beyond school age, both before and after. This community aspect could be built into the students experience, embedded in our curriculum, so when planning a project they would look at how they could involve or support the community. For example creating and producing plays for pre-schoolers, writing stories and running a story time at the library, devising games and spending time as play workers in the local parks.

Creativity is also identified as another prior influence on achievement. It has been found that "Programs with more hands-on activities had stronger effects than those relying on more passive methods" "Those activities that directly adressed students' initial understandings were much more powerful than those which focused more on presentation of accurate scientific information with less attention to students' current understanding" As a school, our vision is for children to build their learning on practical experiences. To investigate their ideas, test, explore and update their thinking through this process. As the children will be leading their learning, being supported in posing their own questions as well as discovering the answers, it will always start from what they already know/understand and build upon this.

Each of the chapters had a great deal of detail, and would make enormous blog posts, so I have made notes on this sub-section of Background, in my next post from this book I will continue onto Attitudes and dispositions.

Another like minded group aiming to set up a free school.

Since starting this project, I have been blown away by the kindness and generosity of people also involved in the process. I have also been heartened to find others putting children at the centre of their plans. Once such group is the Canterbury Free School, who are aiming to apply in the same round as us.  They have kindly written an introduction to their vision and experience, we have our fingers crossed for them.

We are a group of parents and teachers based in Canterbury who are working towards setting up a primary Free School with the aim of opening in September 2015, based on the principles of the Reggio Emilia approach.  Our vision is that our school will be a welcoming and inclusive place where all children, families and teachers are valued as capable individuals who learn best together.  We will champion independent thinking, cultivate healthy social-emotional development, and will be rooted in our community and the natural environment.  We aim to raise educational standards with our unique curriculum, which will driven by our children’s interests and innate love of learning, setting them on the path to future success.

What inspired you to apply to open a free school?

We want to provide an education that encourages children to have a lifelong passion and enthusiasm for learning, with a flexible, skills-based curriculum that allows children to explore their own interests.

Who was the main instigator? How did you build your team?

Amy and Zoe are both teachers with young children.  We were concerned about the things we dislike about primary education at the moment, such as too much teaching to the test, a very rigid and prescriptive curriculum, lots of government interference, a heavy focus on data and test results and so on.  We feel very strongly that this is not the best way for children to learn.  We talked about homeschooling, and then we found that a lot of other parents had the same concerns as us so we thought, why not set up a homeschooling school, and the idea has evolved from there!  We have so far built our team through word of mouth and social media, although we are now approaching local businesses for support.

What are the most important aspects of your school to you?

It's really important to us to have an extended Foundation Stage to age 6, as research shows this gives children the best possible start.  We also won't compromise on having a curriculum that can be adapted according to children's interests.  Assessment for learning will also be a key feature in our school, based on portfolios of children's work rather than formal written tests.  Another key aspect of our school is the Forest School, where we hope to have children in the forest one full day each week, all year round.  Basically we want to focus on learning and what is best for the children, rather than on data.

What are you finding the hardest part of the process?

At the moment everyone in our steering group is a parent with young children at home, this makes for a considerable juggling act and lots of late nights!  

What has surprised you most about the process?

We have been surprised that everyone involved with the process has taken us so seriously and really respects our vision and ethos.  We were concerned that because our approach is a bit different to the norm that people would see us as a bit 'alternative' and 'out there' but so far everyone has been very supportive, perhaps because we have worked hard to back up all our ideas with evidence.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Visible Learning, thoughts based on John Hattie

I came across John Hattie's book only last year, slightly late, but being hailed as the Holy Grail of teaching I thought it was definitely worth my time to read and attempt to digest.

On reading one of the introductory chapters, this section resonated with what I am hoping to achieve with the school.

"The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers. When students become their own teachers they exhibit the self-regulatory attributes that seem most desirable for learners (self-monitoring, self-evaluation, self-assessment, self-teaching).

With the approach of the school being so fluid and responsive to the children I believe that the teachers who work there will definitely need to be "learners of their own teaching".Working with the students to  create the best possible experiences to support their development. With this being an ever changing task the teacher will not have the opportunity to become complacent and know that they can just churn out the same lessons year on year, they will be kept on their toes. From my own experience of working this way in the Early Years, it is initially scary, but is also so much more interesting and exciting for both teacher and student, and ultimately led to much more enriching opportunities for both.

Also the students will be trusted to be "their own teachers", by this of course I don't mean they will be left on their own to get on with it, but they will encouraged to build on the independence skills, supported in the EYFS, throughout their schooling. They will be afforded the time to fully explore their ideas, to look critically at their discoveries and decide how to move forward.

I have decided that it would be a useful exercise for me to work through the findings of this book and think about how these ideas are incorporated into our proposed school, and if they are not think carefully about why not,

The book is structured around six factors:

  1. the child;
  2. the home;
  3. the school;
  4. the curricula
  5. the teacher
  6. the approaches to teaching
So I will follow this structure in my posts. I would love any thoughts and feedback on these musings as hopefully this will be an important learning experience for me and strengthen the school proposal.

Monday, 15 April 2013

West Newcastle Academy

Some local papers have been very kind and written articles about my efforts to try and start the school. I was really pleased when someone contacted me via an article on the YourTownWimbledon. The man who contacted me was Phil Garner, who is part of the group that has set up a free school called the West Newcastle Academy (WNA). On reading their website I was even more excited.

The school shares lots of the same values and approaches that I would like to incorporate. Phil is lovely and has kindly offered to give us the benefit of his knowledge and experience of not only setting up a free school but also of running a school.

Phil has many years' experience in teaching and leading schools, he was formerly the Head of Newcastle School for Boys. He kindly took some time out to answer a few questions on the motivation and ethos behind setting up WNA, as well as the actual process. I am sure we will find more questions to ask as we progress along this journey.

What inspired you to apply to open a free school?

I am passionate about learning and how many state schools are not providing either an appropriate
curriculum or appropriate learning and teaching styles.  I wanted to focus on Performing Arts as well as 
Personalised Learning.

Were you the main instigator? How did you build your team?

Initially I wanted to start my own Free School in Sunderland but decided to work with Kids n Us in
Newcastle to ensure a successful application.  We are now considering opening 3 or 4 more in the North East.

What are the most important aspects of your school to you?

That it serves the community, that it works with parents who want a better learning experience for their children, that it focuses on learning and ensuring children are well prepared for life.  

What did you find the hardest part of the process?

Firstly getting enough expertise and volunteers to do all the essential preparation work. Completing the
application forms and having the stamina to keep going through the various meetings, briefings, debriefings, interviews, rewrites etc.

What surprised you most about the process?

How helpful, knowledgeable and supportive the New Schools Network are. They are the biggest source of help and information for you. 

If you were to give one piece of advice to someone hoping to set up a free school what would it be?

Have a clear vision and do not be diverted from your essential beliefs about what you are 
trying to achieve.