Small is beautiful

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Teachers find 60 to 90 pupils means a school that's big on democracy and job satisfaction. Lisa Hutchins reports.

So what job are you looking for? A post with a clear career structure plus a decent pension scheme? Or maybe one that offers promotion prospects and advanced skills status?

But what if the advertisement listed these benefits instead: freedom from the Sats treadmill, less paperwork, more personal development and a chance to set your own goals, plus a share in running the school? For those in small schools unconstrained by the national curriculum, that is the reality.

Gill Garratt, 55, is an early years specialist with more than 30 years'

experience and working at Lewes New school in Sussex. It has 79 pupils aged three to 11 and describes itself as "reluctantly independent". Like many such schools, it is part of Human Scale Education, a charity promoting alternative small schools.

Ms Garratt took the job just under a year ago because of growing concerns about the direction of early years teaching. "In state schools it is becoming much more subject-driven than child-driven," she says. "I feel it is much better to follow the interests and needs of the child.

"In a small school like this we can do that. We can plan activities - and if a child comes back and says something that we hadn't thought about then we can go with it, and follow it, and really capitalise on it. That is when real learning takes place.

"I was working in a very large state nursery, a very good state nursery, but I was getting frustrated by the top-down approach. We fought really hard to keep a child-centred approach, but there was continuous pressure to set targets."

Marian Imhasly, 49, a mature entrant to teaching with 12 years' experience, has been at the private school for a year, and specialises in teaching three to eight-year-olds. She previously taught in a big primary in the London's East End.

"I really wanted to try to find a way of working in education that was more positive," she says. "There is this dreadful negativity that has descended.

It is endemic and has a massive effect on relationships with children and adults.

"In a small school the right impulse, that all teachers and educationalists have to work for individual children, is possible. No way is it possible in classes of 30 and above. Here you can get to know the strengths of individuals and not put them through the sausage machine."

Mandy Edwards, 42, the special educational needs co-ordinator, taught in state schools for more than eight years, and also has experience in the independent sector. She says: "I'm still getting over the shock of enjoying coming to work every day.

"The longer I have taught, the further I have found myself moving away from the reasons why I became a teacher.

"Adults under pressure don't always behave well. People get very stressed out. In this environment, if you feel stressed you can say so, because we are honest and there isn't that fear. People will respect it. It is a learning environment for the adults as well."

She feels it has had great benefits for her teaching: "My main strength is finding ways to teach children who find it difficult to learn, and I love the challenge. If I can't get something across, I have to look at it laterally - that is what I really enjoy."

Lewes New school is run collectively. There is no headteacher: leadership responsibilities are shared between teachers and the school manager. "It is a situation you couldn't have in a larger school," says Ms Garratt, "because it wouldn't be physically possible.

"It is really exciting to thrash ideas out together rather than have them imposed from above. It is also quite scary. You are very aware that you are not just working for your own class but for a whole-school community."

"We are working from first principles. We are not using the national curriculum but building our own curriculum. It is like starting to like starting to learn to cook by fetching the firewood," says Ms Imhasly. "It's extremely interesting, but very demanding. But anybody in any phase of their teaching career is in a very demanding situation now."

Staff are all trained in emotional intelligence techniques, which promote conflict resolution, problem-solving, emotional honesty and self-motivation in both teachers and pupils. Everyone is known by their first names .

Ms Edwards says: "It has enabled me to be a better teacher. I have found that, even with my experience, I may make suppositions about the children, about why they have done something in a certain way. But if I tell them how I am feeling, they may respond: 'I did it becauseI '. And I may think: 'Oh, I misjudged that situation'.

"It has been quite a steep learning curve: I have had to learn to talk about my feelings and listen to other people expressing theirs, but I am getting there. It is much more positive than being in an environment where you are controlled."

A group of enthusiasts from Lewes founded the school four years ago to meet their own educational ideals. Ms Imhasly says that being rooted in the community is one of the most positive aspects of a small school. "For instance, we go to the local children's bookshop to buy a term's books.

It's a small example, but one of the big impulses about the small school set-up was to keep education local."

So how do you find a post in a small school? Human Scale Education advises teachers to contact schools directly when they find one with an ethos that suits them. Vacancies are advertised in the charity's newsletter.

The National Association for Small Schools, a campaigning organisation for schools at risk of closure, doesn't run a vacancies service, but does have professional advice on its website.

Fiona Carnie, Human Scale's project officer, says: "Candidates will need to be committed to the ethos of the school and prepared to accept a lower salary. But teachers who teach in small schools say that the lower salary is easily compensated for by the pleasure of working in a small school environment where relationships among staff and with students and parents are very supportive."

And Ms Edwards gives the following tip: "Before you make judgments, come along, have a look. It is very easy to sneer at something alternative and to be judgmental. Keep an open mind, and look at what is on offer."

Human Scale Education: Association for Small Schools:

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