'Free' school just a dream

Reports that two of Scotland's educational doyens are planning to set up a Scottish version of Summerhill - the "free school" in Suffolk where pupils bathed naked in an outdoor swimming pool, set their own rules and were allowed to skip classes - appear premature, if not wildly exaggerated.

Brian Boyd (see Summer Debate, left), professor of education at Strathclyde University, and Sir Graham Hills, former principal of Strathclyde University and founder of the University of the Highlands and Islands, have indeed discussed how they might help to set up a new kind of secondary school that eschewed traditional subject routes and instead focused on new thinking about creativity and how young people learn.

But their talks have effectively gone no further than wishful thinking. No education authorities have been contacted, and no formal approaches for funding made to either the Scottish Executive or to the emerging band of Scottish philanthropists who might be willing to fund new educational ventures.

Professor Boyd sought to distance himself from a report in the Sunday Times which suggested he wanted to set up a Scottish Summerhill. Unlike Summerhill - an independent school - he would like to see a new kind of school within the Scottish state system which embraces some of the thinking given a platform by the Learning Tapestry organisation, of which he is a director.

Under the aegis of Tapestry, some of the foremost thinkers on creative learning, and how children acquire learning and thinking skills, from Howard Gardner to Reuven Feuerstein, have given workshops to Scottish teachers in recent years. However, Professor Boyd would like to see these ideas given centre-stage in a school, probably set in a major city, to which a number of authorities could send pupils.

He envisages that staff would be fully trained in the Feuerstein approach to thinking skills and that learning would be cross-curricular rather than subject-based.

The emphasis would be on "soft" skills, such as problem-solving, team-working and creative thinking, rather than what he sees as an exam-dominated curriculum. However, pupils would still sit Highers as in other schools, and attendance would be obligatory, not optional. Pupils would, however, be allowed to participate in setting the rules.

Such a school might well be an option for students who struggle to cope with mainstream education and might otherwise be sent to the expensive option of residential schools. But Professor Boyd admitted: "This is more of a dream than a reality. Nobody is queueing up to offer pound;5-10 million to set up a school when we have got a system that is working quite well."

He recognised that anyone teaching or a pupil in such a school would be working in a goldfish bowl. "A lot of people would be hoping that it would fail - it would be a tricky one to do. But within the Scottish system we should be confident enough to try an idea that we can have a different approach and still have excellence at the heart."

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