Some issues on Human Scale Education
Richard Hickman worked for over twenty years as a class teacher and Advisory Teacher in the state sector. He was then Teacher in Charge of Park School, Dartington, Devon on two occasions between 1997 and 2008. This article describes and evaluates some key issues in human scale education through his discussion of a school in action. Richard can be contacted via Park School on 01803 864588 or email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
SOME ISSUES IN HUMAN SCALE EDUCATION
Questions about how best to organise our schools seem now as pressing as ever despite the number of initiatives and the amount of funding committed to them over the last decade or more. One way of addressing this issue which has been quietly progressing during this time and which has been mainly detached from government initiatives and thinking has been the human scale approach to schooling. Recently this way of thinking about schools has been given emphasis by the inception of the three year research project instigated by Human Scale Education and now in its opening phase. Park School in South Devon has been evolving its human scale principles and practices for over twenty five years and as such it has had an opportunity to give some thought to these and this article is offered as a small contribution to the research debate.
Park is a primary school, however human scale thinking and practice is not age specific and it is therefore to be hoped that readers from all sectors of education will find something useful in what follows. Indeed, human scale principles are not institutionally specific either, so I would like to hope that readers in other sorts of people focussed organisations might also find something relevant here. Another audience whom I particularly have in mind include those concerned about an apparent loss of childhood for today’s children. There has been much debate in the last few years about the need to give childhood back to children: about the problems of “toxic childhoods” fuelled by such things as targeted advertising, the internet, peer group pressures, changing economic expectations and government education legislation, all of which, it is argued, have combined to create rapid and sometimes unwelcome social change in the lives of children and families. I believe a human scale approach helps to provide the antidote to a toxic childhood.
Park School is set in attractive and - for this day and age - quite extensive grounds on the Dartington Hall Estate which was set up by philanthropic reformers Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst in the 1930s to further social, economic and educational experiment, a role which it still maintains. The school normally has about 70 children on roll from three to eleven and it has been exploring and operating alternative educational values and practices since its inception. This article explores some issues in human scale education through the lense of a practicing school. Over the years, writing on alternative education has tended to be characterised by description rather than by analysis or evaluation, the reason being that quite often experiments have been short lived, scarce and not part of anyone’s funded agenda. Thus a body of practice has had neither the time to develop nor to be examined. This article is offered as a hopeful corrective to this. It describes and in particular evaluates aspects of the human scale practice that have been ongoing at Park for well over two decades. Having briefly set out some of the reasons for an alternative approach to education, I shall consider four main areas. These are common to nearly all discussions about educational practice, but are particularly included here because they help to differentiate human scale education from other kinds of school practice. The four areas are: the curriculum, the teaching approach, the role of parents and democracy and authority. Whilst my intention is to be as objective and analytical as possible in recognition of the need for something more than anecdote or description, I come from a background of having been Teacher in Charge at Park on two separate occasions and therefore I have not avoided using this experience to illustrate and comment upon the issues under discussion when it has seemed useful to do so. My belief anyway is that to keep the personal in the discourse is very much in the spirit of human scale practice.
I want to be quite clear at the outset that I believe that alternative schools are a Good Thing, providing of course that they work in the interests of children. One of the big problems we have always had at Park is in recruiting staff who know how to teach in an alternative way. It is often not until teachers are presented with a different set of expectations and assumptions from those they have themselves experienced in their own schooling and met in training and in their professional lives, that they realise how fixed their perspective is. Often this comes as quite a shock to them and the reality is that some find it liberating, if often confusing for a time, and some simply cannot live with the differences and quickly leave. It is as if there is only one way to teach and only certain things worth teaching. Intuitively teachers know that this cannot be the case, but the power of experience allied to the consistent cultural and political messages about teaching and schools which surround us makes it hard for many to step outside the mind set. So the first hurdle for newcomers to jump is the realisation that something else is possible. Of course it then takes a long time to work out quite what this might be and an even longer time to know how to put it into practice. I have certainly experienced this myself. So I believe alternative schools are necessary because they demonstrate that other kinds of education and schools are possible in a British context. This is vital both for a democratic society and because they offer a working model of what those alternatives might be.
Secondly, and connected to this second point, alternative schools are useful because they sometimes lead the way. So I would much prefer the state to embrace their experimentation rather than view them with suspicion and from time to time pressurise them to behave differently, as was the case some years ago when Summerhill, probably the best known alternative school in UK, had to threaten to take the then Department for Education to the European Court of Human Rights in order to allow lessons to continue to be optional. Of course not everything alternative schools try should be copied because if you are experimenting you sometimes get it wrong: there are many ways to move forward but only one way of standing still as the saying goes and of course the welfare of children must always be the paramount concern. At Park we have been doing some things which are now considered to be good practice for a long time. These include growing our own vegetables – and then eating them in very healthy lunches. We were communicating in circles before “ circle time” was invented and we have had school meetings, virtually one large school council, since the school started. Environmental Education has always been central to the curriculum. We have been composting, recycling and building dens in the woods for decades whilst parents have been actively involved since the school started. One way in which we have influenced more mainstream education, apart from indirectly through our work with students and by virtue of the many people who visit the school, is that our Early Years was used as one of the research settings for the Early Years Foundation Stage. For us this was obviously very welcome recognition, however tinged with this is the suspicion that people feel all this progressive stuff is alright for very young children who can afford to play around, but it is not alright as children, or indeed anyone, gets older. Why not?
At the centre of the human scale approach in education is the issue of relationships connected to the size of the organisation. In order to focus on relationships human scale organisations are often small or, alternatively, larger organisations may be divided into smaller units. Is it, for example, a good idea for a secondary school teacher to teach hundreds of different children in a week? Would it not be better if each teacher was responsible for fewer children? Would the behaviour improve? Would everyone feel more involved, secure and engaged and thus the teaching and learning improve? In the state secondary sector in particular, quite a lot of thought and experimentation has been put into this idea over the years and it continues to be so. In fact, this is how the Steiner movement organises its teaching, as indeed do some smaller private schools, and of course this is what primary schools have always done. In addition to the centrality of institutional organisation to support effective relationships, schools on a human scale path have also been characterised by other values and practices and Park reflects these. These typically include parental participation, a democratic ethos, a curriculum which emphasises environmental education and small class sizes. The way in which these are mixed and matched will depend on the particular community which has created the schools and, because human scale education is a broad church, individual schools are also likely to have their own view of what else ought to be learnt and practiced in the school communities they create.
Park has a curriculum which consists of Maths, English and Environmental Education at its core, along with artistic and physical activities and a modern foreign language. How we teach is perhaps a little more important than what we teach but it is probably useful to clarify the rationale of what we offer at the outset. We offer Maths and English because they are at the heart of western democratic education, nor can you understand much without them and, to put it rather more pragmatically, children will be expected to perform in them at their next school. We consider Environmental Education to be fundamental knowledge for the children’s future and in addition we have a site which lends itself well to environmental activities in the way we like to teach. Additionally, we believe children to be potentially creative and we want to give them ample opportunities to discover and express this potential, for example through artistic activity and music. Similarly, we believe growing children should be physically active and so opportunities exist to use the grounds to their full, whether this involves climbing the trees, building dens in the woods, playing in the sandpit or on the swings or having an organised game of football. Finally, it is very important to us as a small school not to become inward looking and a language, usually French, is one small way of helping us to maintain a broader perspective. This is also helped by the wide range of people and experiences routinely available to the children.
So we have reasons for the choice of curriculum which has been put in place over the years and it is important to be clear about this so that the school can be staffed and resourced to teach what it teaches well. Historically this has been something of a bone of contention. For example, should we not teach what parents or children want, which was part of my (erroneous as it quickly turned out) plan when I first arrived? Or, could we not include the subject specialism of a particular teacher? Whilst of course we do respond to what the children find interesting, and of course we want teachers to work to their strengths, there are both practical and philosophical problems in having a curriculum which varies too much. It is simply not possible to suddenly start teaching at a good standard something from out of the blue. It may not connect up with what else is being taught and knowledge should not generally appear random or disconnected. Also, it needs to be consistent with our values and we need to be properly resourced for it. Furthermore, what we practice needs to be consistent with what we say we do, because our community being clear about what exactly our alternative school stands for is challenge enough in itself! Equally importantly, it takes a long time for a school to build its expertise in a particular curriculum area and it is very important that all teaching is done well because otherwise children learn that it is not worth the effort: it is too hard, or too easy or not interesting enough and this is actually the opposite of what we want them to learn about the particular knowledge in question and about the act of learning itself.
Philosophically, a curriculum is an expression of its authors’ values whether this is the National Curriculum or any other. As a school community do we think that all subjects are equally useful and worthy of our time and expertise? Certainly not, and in that we cannot teach everything we must make decisions about what it is worth spending time and effort on and what not. No community which wants to survive and progress can be all things to all people and we are defined as much by what we do not do as what we actually do. As in many other facets of alternative school life it is the boundaries which reflect and sustain our values and like learners everywhere, children will come out of Park with a set of values embedded in what they have been learning and in how they have learnt them.
Children do not simply learn what Teachers teach: otherwise we would all be Einstein. Children have to be developmentally ready, receptive and motivated at the least. So whilst we have a curriculum at Park it is probably truer to say that what we seek to provide are a set of guided experiences appropriate to the child’s developmental path based on what we think it is important for children to know. Whereas in most school settings the child will be made to fit both the curriculum and its prescribed levels, we do it the other way round: the curriculum and expectations of progress are made to fit the child. Our view is that by development we mean the social ,physical, emotional and academic and our expectation is that children will develop along these integrated domains personally and unevenly. This does not mean that the staff “do nothing” or that they just “ let it happen” which is a common misconception about alternative ways of teaching. Rather they spend their time observing children and then interact with them in accordance with our values about what we teach and how. The consequence is that the children are more “hands on”, social, active and independent in their learning. But doesn’t this mean that there are gaps in their knowledge? Well perhaps sometimes it does and then it is the teacher’s job to pick these up. But as I have said, children do not necessarily learn what teachers’ teach and, in addition, it is the learner who interprets the information irrespective of the intention of the teacher, so are we really sure that children taught in other ways do not “have gaps”? And anyway would you not trade this off against hands on, social, active and independent children? Values they will have for life and which mean that they will know how, and be motivated, to plug their own gaps. Be honest, don’t you have gaps in your knowledge and what do you do about them? In addition, when we talk about gaps, we are making assumptions about particular hierarchies of knowledge. But are we sure about the universal validity of hierarchical learning and the right order of teaching hierarchical knowledge?
Let me give a brief example of the Park teaching approach. Environmental Education is a central part of our curriculum for reasons I have outlined above. Like some other schools we have a series of interconnected and deepening themes which help us to cover what we consider to be the essential skills, knowledge and concepts and like many schools we provide information (I do not want to call this “teaching” which is a broader concept than the provision of information). However, we also believe that an essential part of learning about the environment is the opportunity throughout the children’s time in the school for them to climb trees, build dens, play in the woods, camp overnight on the field, walk to the river, build in the sandpits and so on. We believe that the freedom and opportunity to do these things alongside the provision of information and the ongoing experience of planting and harvesting vegetables for the kitchen, composting and recycling - and from time to time keeping animals - means that environmental knowledge becomes embedded. I suspect that some parts of the less adult organised parts of these activities would be called play: if so, this is play with a fundamental purpose because we believe that without this element in our teaching a proper understanding of, in this case, the environment will not occur. I met a former student the other day who had gone on to do well at his local secondary school. He told me he had stood as the Green Party candidate in his school mock elections. Well of course he did. His example also perhaps helps to dispel a particular myth about alternative schools which is that you cannot both play and reach high standards. In fact, I like to see this the other way round: you can only reach high standards if you do play.
Even alternative schools in South Devon live in the real world and explaining all this to parents, who after all pay our bills and agree to entrust their children to us, is an art in itself: this is made easier if the parents have some prior experience of alternative education, which fewer now seem to have. Unfortunately for us, the current language of education is a poor vehicle for explaining our differences. The contemporary educational discourse is of course value laden, as all language is, and is leading at the present time to a restricted discussion about education. Restricted language has both advantages and disadvantages. In terms of some sense of a national debate for example, a common language may be useful. However, in terms of talking about children’s lives and carrying ideas forward the same language can act as a straight jacket. To illustrate this have a look at a range of school prospectuses which will all sound virtually the same whatever the values of the different schools, however they view and treat children and whatever they aspire to. Additionally, there is another aspect of language which is worth mentioning here. Language is instrumental in creating our views of ourselves and the world around us. So how would you prefer your child to think about themselves and how would you like their teachers to think of them? As a year one or as a member of Amanda’s group? As a Key Stage 2 child or one of the older children? As Level 2 in English or greatly improved since last time we spoke? Let me make it clear: I am not arguing here for vague thinking or imprecise communication. Far from it: the human scale teacher needs to be at the top of their game. They need to know their child, know their parents, know the needs of the community, know how they all intermesh and understand the detail of teaching, learning and human development and then be able to talk about it with a rather restricted vocabulary. Alternative teaching is not the easy option, it is the most demanding.
THE ROLE OF PARENTS
Whilst experience has taught me to have some caveats about the role of parents in school, I firmly believe that having parents involved is good, indeed I could not claim to be a human scale education teacher if I thought otherwise. In many respects Park feels like a large school and certainly it feels vibrant. The reason for this is that, whilst the roll usually numbers about seventy, the number of people actively involved in the school is many times that. So the children have the best of both worlds. On the one hand they get the security and educational advantages of being in a small teaching group in a small school but on the other they are a part of something much larger. In this way the school is able to provide much more for the children, not only in a practical sense but also through curriculum enrichment. Also of course, generally speaking, no group work harder for their children’s education than parents. Indeed the effort and commitment that parents show to the school is often simply miraculous. The list of what parents have contributed over the years is endless: from organising school festivals to taking part in regular work parties and from helping on art projects, camping or canoe trips to building a pizza oven, a hen run or a pen for the pigs. Indeed, the role of parents is currently increasing with the advent of two Co-ordinators who now organise the parent contributions. The original model for Park was that parents should be central to the operation of the school. Over time what this means has been much debated and it is true to say that considerable thought and not inconsiderable energy has gone into clarifying the role of parents. This is a complex issue and, as in other matters in alternative schools, getting the boundaries clear so that everyone can get on with their work has been a delicate, but vital, ongoing consideration. This has sometimes been made more difficult by the fact that parents pay for their children, albeit based on a sliding scale according to ability to pay. The rationale for paying is that parents believe that what the school provides is not available elsewhere: it does not of course mean that you can tell the school what to do. This may appear obvious, but it is surprising the number of times this has been an implicit or explicit stumbling block to clear communication and good relations.
The reason for having parents involved is both philosophical and practical. Philosophically we believe that children develop best at the centre of a connection, a nexus, which involves parents, children and the school community. Our experience shows us that children enjoy life and thrive when this works (and by the same token, if this breaks down great distress can be the result). The practical advantages of parent involvement are much easier to justify and it is simply that the more people who are working for a community the more will be achieved providing, of course, that this is properly organised and what is being done is what needs to be done. It is axiomatic that the school exists for the purpose of children to be educated in a human scale way and not so that anyone can try out their own particular idea. This should be self evident, but again it is surprising how often we have had to clarify this misconception.
There was a time when parents were obliged to make a contribution to the teaching of the class. However, experience showed that generally speaking this was not a sustainable idea. Certainly some parents have real expertise and some are also able to share it with children, which of course is a totally different matter. However, the job of the human scale teacher is to look very carefully at the holistic needs of the children in their group and to guide them individually and collectively little by little to greater social, educational and emotional maturity. This is a demanding and complex process and handing the group over to someone who is not actively engaged in that process, who may be unaware of the children’s histories and who has not been involved in the many discussions about children which routinely take place and is part of the human scale ethos is almost antithetical to this. Decision making in this area must be firmly in the hands of the teacher. Only they have the past and current knowledge to decide whether this parent is an appropriate match for this particular group of children tackling this activity at this moment in time.
One consequence of the increasing centralisation of educational control over the last decade under UK governments has been the change in the role of the teacher, and in particular the primary teacher, from interpreter of children and their educational needs to deliverer of a curriculum. It has often been pointed out that once educational discourse started to talk of education as something to be delivered teachers were doing similar things to coalmen, milkmen and postmen, who are also product deliverers. There has been a shift in focus from “am I understanding this child and their relationship to knowledge properly” to “am I interpreting my instructions on how to deliver this information properly?” The truth is that good teachers, particularly but not exclusively, of young children in an instant process a large amount of information when interacting with a child just as parents do. How are they operating today? What happened yesterday? How does this relate to last year/last time/last month/when they started? What will happen tomorrow? What’s the aim for next year/when they leave? And human scale education teachers routinely ask these sorts of on going questions of all their children in the social, educational and emotional domains in the same moment. I suspect that part of official reasoning in recent years has been that this kind of thinking is too complex for teachers and nor does it contribute to the all important quantitative measurement of progress. But I know I did it and so did my colleagues and some of them still do. Then there are the set of sub questions which relate to the sort of basic questions above. So the subset of questions about how are they operating today might include: how are they feeling, how’s father’s illness, has the dog recovered, what has been the impact of the holiday? And thus it continues and for each child a different set of sub question possibilities relating to their own particular circumstances and this is before we get on to the more usual issues of teaching: about place value or multiplication or letter sounds or holding a pencil or learning about letter writing genre, all of which we have further layers of questions about as we assess children’s individual understanding and decide where we should lead them next, the best way of getting them there and the most appropriate resources to use. Teachers process this information for each child as they go through the day reaching as far as possible the most appropriate response to each question at each level for each child: and then in addition the response might be different according to the group the individual child is working with at the time.
In sum, parents have an important role in the classroom, but it is inevitably a role which must be under the control of the teacher who knows the right questions to ask about each child and the appropriate time to do so. To ignore this is to undo the teaching of the human scale educator whilst paying lip service to the idea of parental participation.
A human scale school will get to know the parents as individuals and families very well. At Park, there are formal meetings at the beginning of each term for parents to find out about the programme for the forthcoming term and where they might helpfully contribute. It is of course extremely important that parents attend these kinds of meetings because the better the communication between parents and teachers the greater will be the advantage to the child. In this sense, just as a human scale approach is not the easy option for children or teachers, nor is it so for parents who have greater responsibilities towards the school than in other systems. The twice yearly parent- teacher discussions are similarly vital. For a human scale teacher the common pattern of ten minute briefings is not enough. If you want to have a proper conversation about a child’s development it needs to be much longer than this: around thirty to forty minutes is ideal. In addition, the best model is to have two teachers (and at Park it is quite usual to team teach) and even better to have one male and one female teacher who can bring gender perspectives to the conversation. I have found that this kind of arrangement allows for real knowledge about a child to be gained and exchanged. It is of course a very time consuming approach but essential if we really believe the child is at the nexus of the parent, teacher, community relationship. In this, as in all decisions which educators make, we are making decisions about what we want to spend our time on which reflects our values and above all else, as I have argued throughout, education is a value driven process.
DEMOCRACY AND AUTHORITY
Is Park a democratic school? No single idea has perhaps caused so much confusion to children, staff and parents as this one. Indeed in showing drafts of this article to different people, some commented on how democratic the school seemed and some said the opposite! It is not the case, as at Sands School for example, which is a democratic secondary school located near us and where some of our children move on to at age eleven, that the school meeting makes decisions. However, many visitors comment on how democratic the school feels and indeed the children do have a significant say in what goes on.
A central part of the week is the school meeting which all staff and children attend, the older Early Years children normally attending for a small part of the meeting. The meeting usually lasts up to around an hour. It is chaired by a member of staff and sometimes by older children with support if they wish to. There is an agenda and anyone, staff or children, can agenda an item for discussion and minutes are kept. The rules are that issues raised must be of whole community relevance (individual class items are dealt with at the weekly class meetings and personal matters are dealt with by the individual and their teacher) and no individual should be named in a negative way. Running a good school meeting takes a great deal of skill and nowhere are the boundaries in school life better exemplified or more clearly tested. The meeting does not make decisions, although a non binding vote as an expression of interest occasionally occurs. However, it is certainly not toothless because its views are very carefully listened to because the staff believe it is right that children should have a say in their school. In practice it is closest to a consensual democratic approach because, whilst it doesn’t have the institutional power to make executive decisions, it is quite common for issues to be considered more than once until a consensus emerges. The school meeting is the territory where individual, class and community needs meet, sometimes conflict, get talked about and are potentially resolved – or sometimes not, which is an important democratic lesson in itself. In this way, we believe that the school as a democratic community is good preparation for living in a democratic society. It is also an important part of what helps the children to feel that the school is theirs. No wonder they enjoy coming to a school into which they have from the start had a real input and no wonder our children have a reputation for being able to speak well because this is what they have been encouraged to do in a real way right from the beginning. If you want children to learn, understand and perform, our view is that it has to be integral to their experience. We do not believe that you can properly “teach” democracy as a discrete piece of knowledge, as some kind of curriculum addition. For us, experience in a real context is all and this approach to learning underpins everything we do. Thus, in the same way that playing in the woods, building dens and climbing trees is the way to help embed Environmental Education, so it is with understanding democracy. We believe that children will not begin to understand what democracy means unless they have explored and lived it.
Perhaps nowhere are the potential pitfalls of a human scale approach better illustrated than in these matters of democracy and authority. Let me give an example to illustrate the former. On one occasion the oldest class had managed to persuade the rest of the children that no one would be allowed in their classroom without their express permission. On discovering this I was naturally concerned that it was entirely contrary to the principle of everything (within reason) being open to all which to me is one mark of an open and caring community. However, this decision had come through the school meeting and thus through some kind of democratic process, the school had managed to arrive at a thoroughly undemocratic outcome! I daresay, a more talented Teacher in Charge than me might have found some kind of creative way around the problem but I am afraid I just outlawed the practice. Was this democratic? Of course not: however it seemed to me that, being aware of the potential for this kind of thing to happen, the role of the staff is to lead children to an understanding of how to operate in a democratic way through real participation in it. It is not to stand by and watch the law of unintended consequences occur. This is a fine balance, but abrogating the role of a responsible and caring adult is not part of it.
Democratic practice in any institution is fragile and complex. To give another example: many years ago the practice was for some matters to be decided by a vote. However, when first witnessing this, what I observed was not a group of children carefully listening and then thoughtfully and individually deciding, which is what I had hoped it would be. Rather, it tended to be noisy and competitive and dominated by the loudest voices who all voted the same way. It seems to me that the essence of democracy is that people listen, even, or rather more importantly especially, when it is the quietest, shyest and least confident person who wants to say something: and especially if that something is unpopular. So we worked towards the position that anyone could say anything providing it was authentic to them (and obeyed the other rules of the School Meeting). It made me unpopular of course, especially I suspect with those who felt their power curtailed (cries of “that’s not democratic”) and it took a long time for change to occur. However, what would you rather have: democracy at any price or a community where everyone is listened to?
In addition to the above, there are many other questions about the practice of democracy in schools which will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in any institutions with a democratic aim. I note only a few questions here to be going on with. Is it sensible to put those who have real knowledge and experience on a par with those who do not (and I do know examples where this has happened): is it not rather very useful for an organisation to benefit from those who have real and relevant experience? Secondly, who really has power in a group? It seems to me a myth to pretend that we are really all equal in this regard: some people, for example, have more perceived status while others have prior knowledge or information, whilst some people are better at talking than others and some are better in groups than others. In this regard I have lost count of the number of times I have witnessed a small group of (usually it would seem) the more socially sophisticated girls outmanoeuvring the teacher and the rest of the group in apparently democratic classrooms. In addition, anyone who has had a chance to think over what is coming up on the agenda has much more power than participants who have not, as indeed does whoever makes the agenda or even potentially the person who records the decisions. Also, are democratic organisations democratic about everything? In schools for example, who decides the curriculum content? And how democratic is the teaching style? Is knowledge something fluid to be negotiated or something fixed to be transmitted? And of course, we are all constrained by the law and the ever burgeoning health and safety legislation. In summary, it seems to me that what is important in an educational community is that everyone should be properly listened to, that all views should be taken into account and that those whose responsibility it is to make decisions should make them collaboratively and then explain their reasons. In my experience, very few people mind a decision going against them if the reason is explained to them, but nearly everyone objects if they feel that nobody’s listening. This is very simple but seems to be true of young and old alike. One of the problems I have found with a democratic approach is that the purpose of any kind of organisation is to build an environment for people to be heard, feel secure and self actualised in the context of the organisation achieving its purpose for its members: too much of a focus on the single dimension of democracy can risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.
If you ask people what the difference is between Park and more traditional schools, many reply that it has to do with relationships within the school. It is perfectly true that we set out to make the nature of all our relationships different from most other kinds of schools, but what people are often referring to here in particular are the relationships between teachers and children. I have already referred to the fact that there is an emphasis on children being listened to which implies also showing them respect for who they are and who they are becoming. Another useful dimension for considering this key aspect of the human scale school is that of authority. In the traditional school authority is top down. It starts with the Headteacher, flows down the hierarchy through the deputy if there is one, and then through to the teachers. If you want to empower children, putting them at the bottom is not a promising beginning. But do we want to empower them: is it a valid educational purpose? In that empowerment supports self esteem, independent learning, self actualisation, enjoyment of learning and democratic understanding, yes we do. Don’t you feel, perform and generally learn better when you feel powerful and good and confident in yourself? However, where do we draw the line here? Are we really saying that it is the children who get to call the shots and always decide what is in their best interests? Clearly that is a route to anarchy and it is far removed from the practice of human scale education, but the balance is always a challenging one for teachers to strike and it is one of the hardest skills for them to learn. Students in teacher training are often told to ensure firm control at the outset of their relationship with a new class. The human scale teacher has to be prepared to stand back more, to observe and to understand the dynamics of what is going on and then intervene: understanding is a primary objective. Crucially, and this is something I have found some teachers simply cannot work with, the teacher’s authority is rational. It does not come simply from their place in the hierarchy: the human scale teacher does not say “do it because I say so”. Nor do they say “go to the Headteacher” because being placed somewhere in an institutional hierarchy is not self actualising and does not support that sense of individuality and self worth in a young child which we want to encourage. Nor does it give the message that the world is a rational place which is open to individual thinking, debate and rational change. So in practice what happens is that issues are discussed, even with the youngest child (at an appropriate level of understanding of course), progress observed and personal approaches put in place. This can be time consuming and of course it would be hard to take such an approach with too large a class where too much of this kind of thing was required. We do it like this because we believe children count and, unless we have cause to do otherwise, we trust them which in turn can help them to trust adults and each other. Also, unless repeated experience tells us something else, we believe in the basic positivity of children if they are in an environment which emphasises this. I well remember Laura who came to us diagnosed as an elective mute and who then could not stop talking and starred in all the plays. And nine year old Ali who had driven her previous school and teachers mad to the point of near expulsion until somebody listened to her and gave her some freedom to be herself. Human scale teachers might occasionally say “do it because I say so”. The difference is that by the time this happens the child will have a good understanding of why and it will be in a relationship and institutional context of implicit and explicit care, holistic understanding and planning and concern for this particular child at this particular time.
I pointed out earlier that the School Meeting is chaired by different members of staff: it is not necessarily chaired by the Teacher in Charge nor by their appointee. This again reflects and models a difference between Park and other schools. In the same way that relationships between children and teachers are based on non hierarchical rationality so it is between the staff, between staff and parents and in the way the parent community organises its affairs. This consistency throughout the school is important because for the school community to work properly our human scale values must permeate throughout the organisation: treating the children in one way, for example, whilst treating the staff in another (which I have experienced in some schools) would threaten our integrity and minimise our practice. The style of decision making is collaborative: the staff meeting agenda for example is jointly constructed as is the School meeting agenda whilst which parent does what as part of their community contribution is likewise negotiated by the parents who organise the work. Park is a fun place to work because whoever you are and whatever your place in the school you will have a chance to be heard and thus to influence events, which is how we came to acquire two pot bellied pigs and make a musical trip to France. Of course you may be heard and the result may be that people do not agree with you so you have to be prepared for disappointment as well - irrespective of your age. An essential part of the approach, and in this it is not very different from management in general, is to keep the school on track in terms of being true to its values and consistent in its core practices but at the same time being able to listen and respond flexibly and rationally. This means that everyone involved, and especially the staff who drive the ship, need to be very clear about their boundaries whilst expectations across the whole community need to be very explicit: we have found that in practice this means lots of communication at all levels and writing things down. For example, the role and expectations of parents are formulated in a parent handbook. It is always tempting, especially when financial considerations are at stake, to try to be all things to all people and this simply will not work. The school stands for certain principles and practices: these will not suit some people and in this eventuality it is best for everyone if this is recognised and there is a parting of the ways. Better still is that parents (and children) know what they are signing up to at the outset which means a very careful introduction to the school: we have found that the key times are before a child starts and in the induction period when parents and children are getting used to the school. Trying to be all things to all people in a culture which, as I have argued above, is awash with strong cultural and political messages of what education is, will actually tend to have the effect of pushing the school into the current mainstream practices and ways of thinking. In addition, if we are blown off course we cannot continue to build on what we do well and continue to refine and improve our educational stance and practice. Alongside this, the negative effect on staff morale is obvious.
The ideas behind human scale practice will not go away. Questions about the best way to organise groups of people to achieve particular purposes will always be asked and in some of our current practices we still seem to be some way off some good answers here. High on the political agenda at the moment for example are concerns about the performance of our secondary schools, the NHS and the residential care of our elderly. Whilst this article has concentrated on human scale practice in a primary school, it is my view that the human scale principles underlying the practices which I have been discussing certainly have some lessons for other parts of our social, political and educational systems, institutions and practices, particularly where services to people are at the core. Of course, in reality this covers nearly all of our organisations and not just the three examples I have mentioned above. If they are not serving the needs of the people they are intended for what are they doing and exactly who are they serving?
Author’s note: Readers should bear in mind that Park School practices are continually evolving within its guiding principles and therefore this article should not be taken as a literal description of practice in the school at any one moment in time.