The small school, with its alternatives to mainstream approaches, offers new teachers a taste of diversity, says Elizabeth Holmes
You may feel there is little choice in what type of school to join and what philosophy of education to follow: as a new entrant to the profession you simply get a job and slot in.
Yet education in Britain offers a wealth of choice to both teacher and pupil. There are state schools of varying size, sexual mix, denomination and management status, independent schools of varying accessibility and small schools almost entirely progressive in their nature.
A small school is fairly easily defined. It is one whose learning environment aims to allow the creative, spiritual, psychological, intellectual and physical aspects of each child to be nurtured. Teacherpupil relationships (which lie at the heart of progressive education) are not based on authority and power but on trust and respect and pupils are instrumental in curriculum decision-making. That is not to say this isn't pursued in mainstream schools, but small schools have an advantage in their size.
Many large schools are now looking to the ideas of the small school movement, in particular the student-centred approaches, in order to reorganise themselves into a collection of mini-schools. This enables them to respond to the needs of their pupils and teachers and regain the core of education that was lost when schools became businesses. An example is Stantonbury Campus in Milton Keynes. Flexischooling, a system whereby home and community based education can be combined with school is also on the increase. This mirrors the ways the New York City Education Board is addressing underachievement in large failing schools.
Human Scale Education (HSE), the pressure group set up to promote the education offered by small schools, believes that by offering children active, participatory learning opportunities in small enough groups for solid interpersonal relationships to be built, teachers, pupils and society all benefit.
This is a view shared by Anita Roddick, a patron of HSE. At the HSE annual conference last September, she said: "What we must have as teachers, as parents, even as business people, is a moral sympathy with everything we do. All of us here should work to educate free human beings to develop purpose, imagination, a sense of truth and a feeling of empathy and responsibility. And vision." Personal development skills and an ability to "do" are highly prized by business.
Andrew Broadhurst, a trainee on the Graduate Teacher Programme, chose to do his training at The Dharma School, a Buddhist small school in Brighton, which carries the motto: "We are educating the whole child for the whole world." While this gives him the usual learning experiences, he also has the opportunity to balance academic achievements with the personalities in his small groups. "As a teacher I should be aiming to enable the children in every way. Teaching in a small school, I can openly question what is going on at grass roots level. I can enquire into what is really important to the children and strive towards a balanced way of incorporating that into their formal education; developing learning intentions informed by both the national curriculum and the other needs of each child."
Small schools offer new teachers many advantages. Government adviser Professor Bernard Crick, proponent of citizenship in the curriculum, believes if children can make decisions about their education on some level, they are more motivated academically. Combine this with small teaching groups and the potential is clear. With fewer curriculum constraints, the creativity of teaching can be rediscovered. Just as children flourish or flounder in the mainstream, so do teachers. Diversity is becoming essential.
The downside of teaching in a small school is the salary. Unlike America and the rest of Europe, where progressive education is seen as part of the package of choice, in Britain it exists almost entirely in the private sector.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES?
* Steiner Waldorf schools have an international curriculum, with the same ethos and principles in each school. They cater for four to 19-year-olds, are co-educational and aim to balance the creative and intellectual in each child, following the philosophies of Rudolph Steiner. Social and practical skills and values are emphasised.
Steiner teachers teach the same small group for eight years and select learning material for each child, presenting it in a suitably creative way which will encourage pupils to 'know and love the world'. It could be described as 'ecological' education.
Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, Kidbrooke Park, Forest Row, East Sussex RH18 5JA, Tel: 01342 822115, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org * Montessori education follows the ideas of 19th-century Italian progressive, Maria Montessori. The child has a very structured environment in which to select self-educating activities. The choice rests with the child, with no pressure to learn. Social, academic and practical skills are taught.
Barbara Isaacs, London Montessori Centre, 18 Balderton Street, London W1Y 1TG.
* Visit a small school. Human Scale Education can put you in touch with small schools in your area. Write to HSE, 96 Carlingcott, Near Bath BA2 8AW.
* Freeing Education, edited by Fiona Carnie, Martin Large and Mary Tasker, is available from Hawthorn Press, tel: 01453 757040.
* Remembering Education is holding a conference called 'Making Connections: An Emerging Rationale for the Future' at the London Institute of Education on March 5. Contact Kevin McCarthy, 66 Beaconsfield Villas, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 6HE.