Deer poo, hippy Rooh and lessons in life for us all

17th April 2009 at 01:00

If you go down in the woods today, you're in for a very big surprise. You might find me with 30 Year 7 pupils, all hunting for deer poo, and then trying to work out whether it is from a stag or a hind. It's easy: you just look to see whether or there is an indentation on the end of the dropping. This is how a 21st-century head earns his money - they just don't teach the right things on the NPQH.

The trouble with being a head these days is that there is so much delegation and distributed leadership that you only find some things out at the last minute. So I was the last one in the school to know that each Year 7 tutor group in turn was to spend a day going native.

At a local hippy commune.

The antennae started twitching. I summon the head of Year 7. He tells me it's not a hippy commune. It's a group called Landmatters who live in shelters made of recycled trash and live off the land and use compost toilets and are really nice people and actually some of them even once lived in trees to stop the Newbury bypass.

That did it. Students meditating in bender tents with trendy-leftie, tree-hugging, eco-warriors when they should be in school doing sums? This is just the sort of nonsense that starts happening in schools when Sats are abolished. I really had to go and see this for myself.

We travelled down Devon lanes to the 43-acre site occupied by the Landmatters Co-operative. The first impression was of Swallows and Amazons meets Hobbiton. Woodsmoke rose from the chimneys of the nine houses made of branches, reclaimed tarpaulins and windows dragged from skips. The shire horse that they used instead of a tractor grazed peacefully, the chickens pecked around and children were helping with the washing-up in the outdoor kitchen.

We sat with Rooh on rugs in her cosy bender (named after the bent hazel branches that hold up the roof) as she explained her life to us.

Landmatters is a group of people who are living their lives in a way that promotes bio-diversity and sustainability. They live as a community with their own borehole (the deepest hand-pumped borehole in the world) for water, build their own shelters, grow their own food and manage the land so that they have the lowest possible impact on the environment.

She explained that she only puts on her small light bulbs when her own wind turbine has charged the batteries. She talked about loving to see the stars when she visits the compost loo at night, and she let the kids sit on her tall bed, positioned high off the ground because it's warmer near the roof.

How many people invite 30 children into their home? How many have a life interesting enough to talk about? What a privilege! Our group was spellbound, entranced not just by a way of living so different from their own, but also by the sense of spirituality in the air. These were riches indeed.

Then we went down into the woods with Robin, and he showed us badger tracks, and how we could tell from the paw pressure which way the badger's head was facing when it stopped. We collected edible leaves and berries. We found where the deer had slept. More riches.

For the students this visit was part of their lessons. We are using the Opening Minds curriculum, started by the RSA more than 10 years ago and now increasing in popularity as a result of the new freedoms after the Qualifiucastiona and Curriculum Authority's review of key stage 3. It's about skills and competencies rather than content and knowledge.

Released from the constricting content of national curriculum ring-binders, our teachers have shown creativity and enthusiasm in designing their own modules that excite and engage students. This visit was part of a unit looking at how other people live and the beliefs they hold. It is difficult to see how learning could be more rich or real.

I had to leave the Landmatters site early to get back for a meeting of our Rag, the acronym for the raising achievement group. All National Challenge schools have one fortnightly to monitor the progress of Year 11s, and we figured we would try it too. It's a euphemism for making sure your exam results are good enough to keep Ofsted off your back.

This week we talked about which kids to take out from RE and PE lessons, reckoning that a bit of extra maths cramming was more important than either the spiritual or the physical. Our deputy head, Paul, who does for our school what Brains did for Thunderbirds, had been researching the niceties of contextual value added in a bid to understand how to get our number higher. Apparently an ordinary Irish Year 11 has a CVA underlying coefficient of 0.102, whereas a Traveller of Irish origin is -49.191. I never knew that.

I found my mind drifting back to my morning in the bender. My day had gone from riches to rags. And I know which is education.

Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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