Once upon a time, there was a Storybook school

4th December 2015 at 00:00
In a glen populated by fairy-tale characters, the Aberdeen Green School aims to blend environmentalism with entrepreneurialism. Henry Hepburn investigates

Storybook Glen is a nostalgic touchstone for anyone who grew up in or around Aberdeen over the past 30 years. In summer, its life-size models of fairy-tale and film characters are surrounded by toddlers not yet discerning enough to demand a trip to Disneyland.

In stark contrast, under the relentless drizzle of the Scottish autumn, the park – which has recently been renamed the Den and the Glen – is deserted and takes on a sorry air. Now, however, in among the statues of Humpty Dumpty, Little Miss Muffet and misshapen renderings of Shrek and Postman Pat, you may find a group of teenagers poring over quadratic equations and Shakespearean soliloquies – for Storybook Glen has become home to a school.

The Aberdeen Green School, for students aged 10-19, opened with no fanfare in August 2014. It has quietly built up a reputation through word of mouth and last month received a largely positive first inspection report from Education Scotland (see panel, page 18).

It takes inspiration from the Green School in Bali, Indonesia, which won the title of “Greenest School on Earth” in 2012. It is also based on the High Tech High network of schools in San Diego, California, where teachers design their own curricula and learning is driven by projects that cross the boundaries between traditional subjects (see panel, opposite).

Most students at the Aberdeen Green School – but none of the teachers – came from the Aberdeen Waldorf School, which was forced to close in 2014 after poor inspection reports and complaints about “staffing and the care of children”.

The new school fuses environmentalism with an entrepreneurial spirit. Classes are shaped by ambitious projects – one will involve pupils building a straw-bale classroom – and learning is personalised according to career aspirations. The school has seven pupils but aims eventually to take 30.

“The thought of going into a big school with 1,000 kids and 20-30 in each class filled them with horror,” says director Diane Elliott, who has two sons at the school and is the only full-time member of staff. The annual fees of £7,800 are too steep for some parents who have expressed an interest, but Elliott hopes that support from local businesses will allow scholarships to be offered soon.

Learning in Santa’s workshop

The school premises, rented from Storybook Glen and located right next to its entrance, are easily the most unusual TESS has ever encountered. Giant toy soldiers act as sentries out front and the whorled glass panes are more evocative of Santa’s workshop than a place of learning. Inside, paintings of Peppa Pig, the Simpsons and Spider-Man adorn the walls of the large, open space – the building doubles up as a weekend venue for children’s parties.

It is hoped that the Aberdeen Green School will move in the future but the current set-up is an improvement on the draughty Scout Association hall where it started life. It is a few miles from the nearest state secondary, Cults Academy, where 16-year-old Bailey Gwynne – a former Aberdeen Waldorf pupil – died in tragic circumstances in October.

There are three small rooms: a classroom, a meeting space that doubles as Elliott’s office and a cubby hole for individual study. The office has several crayon drawings of Buddha and a bookshelf filled with eclectic offerings: Alan Sugar’s biography, for example, sits beside environmental tracts.

The school does not have a hardline anti-capitalist approach – pupils learn about business and environmentalism. “I don’t think the two necessarily cancel each other out,” says Elliott, who previously worked in corporate communications, motivational training and educational consultancy. A case in point is a social enterprise the pupils have started, which sells hats made from recycled jumpers.

One large desk nearly fills the classroom. A Jackson Pollock-style painting of spattered colour stretches right across the front wall. At one end are two buckets of soil, at the other Banksy-inspired posters with slogans such as “Be different” and “Free your mind”.

The pupils are articulate, polite and quietly ambitious. Sometimes they are left for up to two hours to get on with work. Elliott steps in only if the noise builds to an unruly crescendo. They feel like part of a team pulling in the same direction. One girl, 16-year-old Rowen Young, says the atmosphere in a bigger school would be fraught and peers would be “more judgemental”.

“At a lot of mainstream schools, there is no looking at how the child is developing emotionally – when you go to a smaller class like this, you can work out a holistic plan for them,” Elliott says.

Woodland walks

The pupils go for regular walks in Storybook Glen or the 160 acres of adjoining woodland and they are encouraged to meditate. If something is bothering them, they are free to go outside for some quiet time. There are weekly excursions, too, often for outdoor activities, although the most recent one was to see the film Suffragette.

Elias Stammeijer, 14, says that a big gym with PE equipment is one of the only advantages he can see of being in a large, mainstream school. Everyone concurs, however, that they would like at least a few more classmates.

The defining feature that emerges from the TESS visit is not the environmental focus but a constant and explicit emphasis on pupils’ career aspirations. The school shares some values with the defunct Waldorf School and many others around the world based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, which extol “unhurried and creative” education. But Elliott felt the Aberdeen version of this approach was too sealed-off from the real world and reliant on traditional “chalk and talk” methods where pupils did teachers’ bidding.

The Aberdeen Green School offers national qualifications in three subjects as standard: English, maths and physics. The current cohort, aged 14-17, is working on National 5s. Three part-time specialists in the core subjects and drama are qualified teachers – albeit from outside the Scottish system.

The school tailors qualifications and work experience to the jobs pupils wish to pursue. One girl who wants to work with young children is doing an Open University course in childcare. Another may be allowed to drop physics for modern studies as she wants to work in politics; the school also arranged a stint in the constituency office of former first minister Alex Salmond.

Like many teenagers, of course, some students are not sure what to do after school, so they explore how they might meld their passions and hobbies with a career. One girl who enjoys art and concerts is contacting up-and-coming bands and offering to design their album covers and merchandise.

Michael Elliott, 16, one of the director’s sons, says the pupils thrive because they largely avoid “the stress of exams”, adding: “Here, you know you’re doing as well as you could do.”

The school does not entirely distance itself from mainstream Scottish education, and Diane Elliott is excited by the flexibility Curriculum for Excellence purports to offer. The irony, she feels, is that the nimble, project-based learning espoused in CfE is more easily achieved here than in the tumult of a large secondary. CfE embraces many different ideas of individual pupil success, she reasons, so why isn’t Scotland more open-minded about a diverse mix of school models? Elliott would like to help drive a Scottish version of free schools – taxpayer-funded but not run by local authorities, as in England – and wants to explore whether there is any appetite for them.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you created more, smaller schools that offered different things, and parents had more of a choice?” she says.


The inspiration behind the Aberdeen Green School

The Green School in Bali was opened in 2008 by John and Cynthia Hardy, a North American couple who moved to Indonesia in the 1970s. Their jewellery business provided funding, and pupils helped to build the mud, bamboo and straw premises. The school is powered by solar energy and the mainly international students eat food grown in its vegetable garden.

The curriculum is loose and adaptable, with teachers reacting to unexpected learning opportunities – such as when exotic wildlife suddenly appears outside. “It’s a learning by living concept,” John Hardy told an interviewer.

Last year, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called it “the most unique and impressive” school he had seen. In 2012, the Center for Green Schools awarded it the title of “Greenest School on Earth”.

Meanwhile, High Tech High in San Diego, California, is a network of schools that champion project-based, personalised learning, and where teachers design the curricula. One teacher told a reporter: “It is everything I went into teaching for, with the focus on relationships and the freedom for intellectual exploration.”

What the inspectors say

The Aberdeen Green School’s first Education Scotland inspection report was published on 3 November. The key strengths and areas for improvement identified include:

Articulate and motivated pupils who have a mature attitude to their learning and development.

The personalised approach to learning, which helps all young people learn well.

The positive, caring ethos of mutual respect.

The vision and commitment of the school’s director.

The school was advised to strengthen governance to ensure “transparency, accountability and strategic leadership and direction”, and to do more work on its self-evaluation approaches.

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