Can we reinvent State Schools?: St. John's

St. John's Design and Technology pupils presenting their selfbuilt ecovehicle. Source: Gazette & Herald

St. John's Design and Technology pupils presenting their selfbuilt ecovehicle.

Source: Gazette & Herald

The opportunity is still with us to revisit the philosophy of education and determine what schools and learners should look like. The time has come to let sunshine flood through the classroom window!
Patrick Hazlewood, St. John's Headteacher

Year 2005. South of England. In the small town of Marlborough, the statements on homework of a secondary school headteacher instigate a revolution in Education. Supporters of the Old Regime, in an attempt to hold back his ideas, accuse the headteacher of 'wrecking education and wasting taxpayers money'. But the paradigm change is already unstoppable.

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St. John's is no stronghold of alternative pedagogy. It is a huge State School with around 1700 students between the ages of 11 and 19. Its origins as an educational institution go back to 1550, and it boasts distinguised alumni such as the writer William Golding. Patrick Hazlewood, its Headteacher, is no radical agitator. But his vision of Education and his commitment to improve it have transformed this educational centre and allowed it to be at the forefront of a pedagogical renovation akin to the work of authors such as Dewey, Piaget, Montessori or Holt.

This is the first of the educational centres we will be visiting in England. After a steep climb –a prelude to the never-ending hills we shall encounter in Devon– we are finally in the magnificent and modern building which St. John's occupies since 2010. Tom Nicholls –who as well as a cyclist is Assistant Vice-Principal–welcomes us. But since it's the pupils who play the leading role here at St. John's, it will be one of them, Bradley, who will guide us through the gardens and sports fields, the corridors and the classrooms, where we shall find small groups of students, sewing machines, a 3D printer, computers, woodworking tools, a laser cutter, curious objects created by the pupils themselves, a theatre, and lots, lots of natural light.

How did this become possible? A pilot study was carried out in 2001, henceforth giving year 7 and year 8 students (respectively eleven and twelve year olds) the chance to follow an alternative curriculum (as opposed to the national curriculum) which places the learner at the centre of the learning process. This curriculum is built upon five competences1: Citizenship Skills, Learning Skills, Information Skills, People Skills and Situation Skills. The theory of multiple intelligences and emotional intelligence are incorporated into everyday tasks. There are no subjects, for as Patrick Hazlewood explains, the curriculum 'from the students' view should be a continuous experience rather like opening a book and proceeding to be engaged and captivated by an exciting story unfolding before their eyes.' Each student is encouraged to take responsibility for his or her own learning through open-ended activities (in which there isn't a predefined goal or solution) where no correct or incorrect answers are sought, favouring instead a display of creativity which requires that we cease to be afraid of making mistakes. Exams are no longer the reason for studying, and the pupils acquire the capacity to assess their own work. In spite of the increasing preassure surrounding exams and measurments, St. John's staff believe that 'standards, structures and assessment have their place but not at the expense of destroying the desire to learn and the pleasure of learning.'

The pilot in which this new framework was first put to the test produced results that exceeded all expectations: students not only showed greater knowledge in Maths, Sciences and English, their behaviour was also better and... they enjoyed learning! What came as a surprise for the staff involved in the pilot was the fact that they themselves recovered something which seemed long forgotten: the enthusiasm for teaching.

Tom has given us the chance of meeting a group of students and telling them about our journey. One of them is Will, a young man who's passionate about the visual world, and who tells us he chose St. John's because this school offers training in a wide range of disciplines, photography being one of them. St. John's students come from very diverse economic and social backgrounds, and the school strives to lessen this impact –by means of the Student Premium, for example– so that all pupils can take equal advantage of the educational opportunities offered them. When asked about the degree of autonomy they have here, Ashley, Josh, Oliver and Lily are clear about it: for them, freedom has a vital role in learning –it helps them mature and strengthen their character, it makes them feel capable of achieving goals by themselves and it prepares them for real life.

We leave St. John's with a smile on our lips. At the same time, we see students coming out through the doors, as the school day comes to an end. Will they have to do much homework? Patrick Hazlewood's words echo loudly: 'Traditional homework is boring, irrelevant and all to often the source of family conflict, [...] homework is a 20th-century concept whose time has long gone.'

April 24, 2014

1These competences were defined by the RSA (Royal Society for the Arts). St. John's, together with some other 200 educational centres in the UK, collaborates with the RSA through the Opening Minds program.