Facing me sits Chloe. She's fourteen, maybe fifteen, and her eyes, like herself, are seeking refuge. We've talked before and I know why. She comes from another 'educational centre', a place where things were very different, where a teacher can make you believe you're good for nothing, where you can feel lonely, where every morning is the same as the one before. We're sitting face to face, surrounded by silence, and she tells me about a day when she was happy again, in this other school, a small school, almost hidden. 'They want me here', she says, and her eyes dance.
As with some shy people, just by looking at the façade of the old church building where The Small School is you could never imagine the universe that hides inside. But when the doors open to us and we step inside, we are bathed in that atomosphere of calmness, of seclusion, that seems to live on through time. There's hardly any noise, everything seems to flow in an orderly, unhurried rhythm. Not even the clatter in the kitchen that precedes lunch seems unpleasant. This quietness is precisely one of the things that students here most appreciate. Many of them arrive disillusioned, fleeing from a hierarchical educational system based on mass-production, where bullying is prevasive.
We're in the north of Devon, Southwest England, in a remote and ignored village called Hartland. Arriving to this school, where we are greeted as if we were already members of their small great family, is a reward in itself: it has cost us toil and sweat (no tears fortunately) to get our bikes and trailers over devilish hills that never seemed to end. In this rural area, young people's chances of attending school are exceedingly limited. The Small School is a private school which was founded by a group of families in 19821 in order to give 11 to 16-year-olds the chance to study in their own environment, and to allow parents to be close to them and get involved in their education every day.
Why Small? This school does not want to grow. Right now it has some twenty pupils, but the maximum it will take is forty, which means that for every class there are four pupils on average. It's about preserving a size that lets every member of the community know all the others and establish an emotional bond: what they call 'human scale education'. This idea has found support in the scientific community, from researchers such as the anthopologist Robin Dunbar, who claims that there is a maximum number of people with whom we can maintain a stable social relationship. But the fact that this school is small does not imply that chances of learning are less: the range of activities and subjects open to students is wider than in other schools (16 GCSEs), since it is self-motivated learning that's encouraged and the school seeks to adapt to the students' diversity of interests.
Louise Hopkinson is headteacher. Although she will soon be retiring, she has the jovial appearance and the smile of a young girl. While the rest of the school is getting ready to start their day, she takes us through the classrooms (for instance, a dark room where Paul Wilkinson teaches film and photography, and an art room) and the outside area, which includes a vegetable garden and orchard, and a polytunnel greenhouse. One of the mums has designed the garden, combining ornamental plants with native wildlife, and it's a wonderful place to enjoy sports or just sitting in contempation. The old church hall has taken on new life, and is used as meeting place (at the beginning and end of the school day everybody comes together for an assembly in which students and teachers talk about school issues or anything else they might have concerns about), as dining-room, as improvised climbing wall, or as music room...
Louise tells us that for many years she dreamt of coming to The Small School as a teacher. She finally achieved it near the end of her career. If there's something that tells teachers at The Small School apart it's their motivation. The relationship with the students is cherished, so as to build the respect and commitment that such a close-knit community needs. At The Small School, trust is one of the pillars of the relationship between teachers and students, and this, which also improves students' achievement, can only happen in groups of 350 pupils or less2. The educator, author and social activist Deborah Meier, from the US-based Small Schools Movement, claims that in smaller schools it is possible to have a face-to-face democracy, enabling students to take part in decision-making. This is evident here, where all members of the community have a chance to communicate frequently with each other, and not just about academic contents.
Feeling that the school is an extension of your home is easy at The Small School. But it's not just the warm and friendly atmosphere, the beautiful classrooms: families get involved in the running and maintenance of the school as much as they can. Every day, one of the parents comes in to cook lunch (which is vegetarian, organic and locally sourced when not grown in the school garden) with two of the pupils. Many weekends are devoted to repairs in the school which are undertaken by the families. And a third of the school expenses is obtained through fund-raising activities carried out by parents. Last but not least, every afternoon, after assembly, everyone chips in with dusting and cleaning up. Nobody grumbles or slopes off.
To our surprise, at The Small School we shall find two Spanish mums whose children come to the school: Francina y Rocío. Francina tells us about the change she has seen in her son since he's been able to study here: 'He's loose, he moves freely, he feels included'. Rocío, the same as Francina, was looking for a school where her daughter Alba would feel respected. Alba spent many of her high-school years in Spain in a school where, as she says, 'there were some 1500 students and classes were really noisy, there was a lot of rote-learning', and she compares this with the family atmosphere she has found here, where 'you can get to know your teachers, talk with them'. Here, as well as new teachers and class mates, she has found friends.
After spending some days at this school, it feels such a shame to have to say goodbye. The school has been our refuge too, and it has helped us see how education can transform peoples' lives, make them more involved, more generous, happier. Before we leave, some of the students give us a hug... the same way they once hugged Chloe, making her want to learn again, to take her own path and, most of all, to live.
April 30, May 1 and 2, 2014