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Northern Lights - a beacon of hope

From dealing with traumatic schooldays to laughter yoga, a `different' education conference reveals new curriculum in action

From dealing with traumatic schooldays to laughter yoga, a `different' education conference reveals new curriculum in action

It is the small details that hint at something different; The TESS attends dozens of conferences in the year, but none quite like this. Floral prints and jugs of peppermint tea replace pinstripes and industrial-sludge coffee. There is a relaxed attitude to starting late, and at one point an organiser cheerfully admits to everyone that she has "f****d up".

This is Northern Lights, an education conference in the unusual setting of Findhorn Foundation. A spiritual community on the Moray coast, dating from 1962 when founders Eileen and Peter Caddy arrived in a caravan, its openness to faiths and beliefs of all types attracts 14,000 visitors a year.

Playback Theatre, an improvisational troupe, takes centre stage on Friday evening at the three-day event. Delegates are asked whether schooldays really were the happiest time of their lives, and their stories are turned into little pieces of drama.

A South Korean man of around 30 recalls a harrowing time when each percentage point below the pass mark might result in a strike from a baseball bat-wielding teacher. A German woman in her 50s describes the impact when the head forbade her, at the age of 18, to drop Latin, a subject she hated; she was alienated from school by not having a say in her own learning.

By the end of the night, the professional actors are encouraging the audience to live out these episodes on stage, a cathartic experience bringing sporadic tears and laughter.

Maria Arpa, Saturday's first speaker, used to run an advertising agency; now she runs the Centre for Peaceful Solutions charity in London. She believes society suffers because problems are solved through retribution - what she calls a "domination culture".

She tells how staff at one school were at their wits' end when they gave her free rein to work with their out-of-control Year 9 boys (aged around 14). On one occasion they rioted because there were no keys to a classroom. Ms Arpa focused not on the boys' behaviour, but on asking them what they needed. The boys wanted to hear what staff said about them behind closed doors. So she arranged for five delegates to sit in on a staff meeting. It helped improve behaviour dramatically.

"The only way it's going to work is if everyone has an equal voice," Ms Arpa says. "Even if the system doesn't like what it's going to hear."

Learning with Horses was the title of the next session. Former teacher Beth Duff founded The Red Horse Speaks, just outside Aberdeen, where the experience is about being with horses, not about horsemanship.

She works with corporate and educational clients. P7 pupils took the fear out of transition to secondary, where they are the smallest people in school, by standing up tall and issuing instructions to horses. Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder were calmed by helping a horse to be at ease in its surroundings, and a talented young footballer's swagger gave way to humility as he learned to dribble around a horse without alarming it.

Lunch allows a look around the community that is home to about 500 people. At times there is an almost suburban feel, as they tend well-manicured gardens and walk dogs, but their often-grand houses are far from uniform, making use of wood, local stone and straw bales.

There are hints everywhere of Findhorn's communal ethos. During lunch, a woman asks if anyone might help with dishes. Public toilets thank you for your contribution to the Living Machine, an ecological sewerage-treatment system.

The conference is organised by supply teacher Dorota Owen and psychotherapist Joan Wilmot. They do not have set arrangements for the afternoon; instead, delegates are asked what they are interested in, and who would like to lead a workshop.

Manda Stretch volunteers to take an impromptu session of laughter yoga. Six of us head downstairs to feel the restorative power of a hearty chuckle, and are soon lurching around the room in mirth, even if it feels self-conscious at first. "You've got to fake it to make it," we're told.

Former secondary teacher Jane James works for the Nowhere Foundation, a "hidden community of creative catalysts". She takes a session on "systemic constellations", which explores the influence of social systems, such as families, schools and communities, rather than individual behaviour. The work has received Government funding in England.

Everyone sits in a circle as a volunteer talks about a conflict with another person. The volunteer chooses people to represent the protagonists, and moves them around the room to show the inter- relationships. With prompting from Mrs James, volunteer and role-players work through the issue.

Findhorn has had to contend with dismissive and inaccurate reporting over the years, and the suspicion of locals (relations now are good with the neighbouring coastal village of Findhorn and RAF Kinloss).

But much of what happens at the conference seems familiar: giving pupils a voice; dissolving barriers between primary and secondary; flexible approaches to learning; schools as places of constantly- renegotiated relationships. Isn't this Curriculum for Excellence in action?;

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