English teacher Carly Smythe was on the verge of leaving teaching when she arrived at Ashford School in Kent after a difficult NQT year. Working in a school in which she was expected to stick to rigid pre-prepared lesson plans had sapped her confidence and nearly put her off the career she had dreamed of since she was 16.
“You’re always asking yourself ‘Am I doing it right?’ That sort of prescriptive approach is quite restrictive … You can suddenly feel a bit at sea,” says Smythe, who is now head of Years 9-11. “Here, you not only know the subject you’re teaching but own the means by which you are communicating.”
She now tries to bring that freedom to her own English classes by encouraging her students to take risks and let their imaginations run wild. One example has been her Just Write initiative, in which children are given 20 minutes, once a week, to write whatever they want without it being marked.
Amid the barrage of stimuli from television, the internet and social media, “pupils often struggle to develop their own creativity”, she says. “They feel the pressure of expectation…but once you take that away, it’s all there. Regardless of their ability and how much they enjoyed English lessons, they all enjoyed it.
“A lot of the pupils then even wanted to show what they’d written.”
Eschewing traditional ranking schemes, Ashford School now rewards its pupils and teachers according to “learning habits” that empower them to think creatively and be adventurous.
“Pupils and staff are encouraged to reflect on their strengths and use the opportunities here, take risks, and push themselves out of their comfort zone,” explains Smythe.
She contrasts this approach with the recent changes to the exam system, which she says are “very much about jumping through hoops”.
“I think these slightly clumsy objective measures of success aren’t particularly helpful,” Smythe says.
Far more important is to “be proud of who or what you are”, she adds. “And once you start having that pride, it breeds respect in who or what you are. As an ethos, it has much more longevity that trying to conform to other people’s expectations.”