Freedom to choose

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
KING ALFRED SCHOOL AND THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT 1898-1998. By Ron Brooks. University of Wales Press Pounds 35. REAL EDUCATION: VARIETIES OF FREEDOM. By David Gribble. Libertarian Education Pounds 8.95.

Schools with child-centred and progressive attitudes might not be fashionable, but they are a refreshing reminder of life beyond the national curriculum and league tables, writes Virginia Makins

An "educational winter" that looks set to continue into the new century is freezing educational development in the UK. That is the view of the historian Ron Brooks, author of a cool-headed and detached account of the first 100 years of King Alfred School in Hampstead, one of the first independent progressive schools set up in the late 19th century.

Unusually, King Alfred's was not the boarding-school creation of a great headmaster, but an attempt by a group of parents to start a co-educational day school on "rational" principles, based on the best existing knowledge of child development. In particular, it was a response to what one of its founders called "the great juggernaut of modern education, the examination craze", with its excessive pressure on children caused by the "medieval method of cramming with juiceless facts, names and dates".

When winter comes, can spring be far behind? The great juggernaut has recently undergone an extensive refit, but there are few visible signs of burgeoning new shoots in British education. David Gribble, who taught for many years at Dartington Hall, has combed the world for what he calls "real education". He has found some fascinating examples of schools set up by individual teachers or groups of parents committed to respond to children's real interests and needs, and aiming to provide an education in human relationships and responsibilities and creativity as well as academic development.

At a time when schools with child-centred and progressive instincts are keeping their heads well below the parapet, it is salutary to be reminded that there is a life beyond the new juggernaut of national curriculum and assessment and league tables.

One of the most interesting parts of both these books is the unity and confidence of the students' voices. Ron Brooks has given proper weight to the views of old Alfredians. David Gribble will irritate many by his scorn for the efforts of teachers in conventional schools to promote the well-being of their students, but it is still worth listening to the case for the prosecution.

There is the child at Sumavanum, a school for poor village children in India, who says: "We have learned we have to think what we are doing. Thinking is the main thing, more access to the brain." There are many students, ranging from privileged children in Massachusetts to students found ineducable by mainstream schools in Switzerland, who talk of the importance of taking responsibility for their own learning - even when it means a year or two spending most of their time at a progressive school socialising and gaining confidence.

"I have learned a lot of responsibility and discipline in achieving my own goals," says a boy who had buckled down to work at his (state-sponsored) progressive school in Israel in order to pass the school leaving exam after doing very little in the academic line for a couple of years. "I see it with a lot of other people that they have less sense of responsibility because they were over-schooled what to do."

The students often contrast their experience of mainstream schools with progressive education. "I learned subjects in the local school. But I've been learning many, many other things at Kinokuni," says a Japanese boy.

A girl in New Delhi says: "Today's kids, from class one, are so tensed up.Study, study, study. And parents forcing them; everything is studies and studies. From all sides the child is being pressurised." Students keep returning to the importance of being given time, for relationships, for finding their own interests and goals, for doing nine-year-old maths even though they are 12.

Progressive schools are each progressive in their own way. Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts does not have any lessons at all unless students want them. Most of its students do perfectly well, using school to socialise and debate and invent and play games, and saving academic work for home. Other schools are more formal about lessons and assessments. Even so, their students recognise clear differences in attitudes and intentions from the mainstream schools they had experienced.

Some schools, such as King Alfred's, remain authoritarian under the skin - the adults decide what is best for children, often calling on thinkers such as Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi or Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky. Others are genuinely democratic. Rebeca Wild, founder of the much-visited Pestalozzi school in Ecuador, is clear that her school is not a model that can be copied. "We did as well as we could, according to our ability, in our specific situation. It is simply not transferable."

Doing as well as they can, in their specific situation, is what many good teachers in England now feel unable to do. Spring will come again when the Government realises that teachers and pupils both need time and encouragement to build on their strengths, negotiate their own goals, work on relationships, learn from their mistakes, and try out and evaluate new ways of working. The word "progressive" (OED definition: "moving forward, proceeding step by step") should be rehabilitated.

One small step would be to follow countries such as Denmark, and give parents who want to start a different kind of school - and can prove a viable demand for it - equivalent per capita funding to state schools in order to do it. Such schools need inspection and assessment congruent with their aims, and should be allowed to interpret the national curriculum (something that the 1988 Education Act sanctions, though to my knowledge no school has taken advantage of the let-out clause). That way, all parents - not just wealthy ones - could have a real choice, and we could see what happens when some children and teachers are freed from the juggernaut.

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