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Why it's time for an alternative education

Fiona Carnie explains why academies should make the most of opportunities and explore an alternative education

Posted by Lucinda Reid | August 28, 2017 | School life

In recent months there has been increased media focus on the pressures facing young people growing up in today’s world. Bullying, self-harm, eating disorders, on-line porn and poor mental health have all attracted comment. High on the list also is the culture of testing in schools which leads to significant stress.

Time for change 

According to an OECD report in 2008, English children are among the most tested in the world. And research conducted by the Children’s Society last year found that out of 15 diverse nations, England ranked 14th in terms of the life satisfaction of its young people, behind countries such as Ethiopia, Romania and Algeria. What is going on? We are one of the richest countries in the world and yet our young people are unhappy. Is there a correlation between the pressures young people feel at school and their level of happiness?

It begs the question – does education have to be like this or is there another way? Take Finland for example, a country which scores well on international measures such as the OECD PISA tables, but where there is only one national exam at the end of compulsory schooling. This shows that high levels of testing do not lead to better outcomes for young people.

There is glimmer of hope in England: the new Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, has spoken about the need for a broader curriculum and has suggested that there should be less of a focus on exams. Could academies seize this opportunity and explore ways of educating that lead to greater wellbeing?

Putting children first 

There are already some inspiring examples to learn from: schools that are following a somewhat different path. Take the Cooperative Schools for example. These schools are underpinned by the cooperative principles of self-help, responsibility, democracy and equality. They aim to give young people a say in their education, making them active participants rather than passive recipients of learning. Lipson Cooperative Academy in Plymouth prides itself on its culture of listening to ensure that there is genuine engagement between teachers and students. Another example, Stanley Park High School in London is committed to human scale education and the primacy of relationships. It is divided into four small schools to ensure that children are part of a community in which they are known as individuals. The RSA Academies, a dynamic group of schools in the Midlands, focus on creativity and imagination in the curriculum in order to develop skills and competences which are of value in the world beyond school. Forest Schools, such as Graffham and Duncton in Sussex, enable children to develop confidence, self-esteem and resilience through regular hands-on experiences in the outdoor world.

Schools such as these are based on the values of a healthy society – of democracy, community, fairness, trust, tolerance, openness and support. Children who have experienced these values in an active way as an integral part of their education are more likely to reflect them in their own lives and work. Now more than ever we are aware of the need to create a world which is based on such values, and the challenge for education is thus to inculcate them.

Making the most of opportunities 

It is interesting that both the Scottish and Welsh systems are undergoing a radical overhaul of their curriculum and assessment frameworks to better meet the needs of children and young people in our fast changing and uncertain world. Major changes are needed in England too.

When academies were first introduced, the rationale was that they would have the freedom and independence to innovate and do things differently. It is time to step up and make the most of these opportunities to provide an education that puts children first.

Fiona Carnie is an educationalist and writer and for five years was a member of the leadership team at the RSA Academy in Tipton. Her book Alternative Approaches to Education is published by RoutledgeFalmer.

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