The Three Circles: Podcast Notes

  • The bigger circle is Free Play, the middle circle is Activity and Projects and the smaller is Reduced Formal Curriculum.
  • We want a curriculum.  We want free play.  Even the activity and project work is freely chosen.  

Next week we look at possible imbalances of the Three Circles

Little kids in Class 1 spend most time in free play outside the classroom. The classroom is set up to offer a balance of play/activity and a little formal Maths/ Language learning and the timetable has short taster times for other subjects. Children are aged 6-10.The teacher is on duty but when the good weather comes around may not be that busy.  Children have free access to outdoors and many alternative spaces.

We said that we were going to focus on Veteran Children at the Clubhouse level for our Prado School start-up, so the podcast focussed on ‘Junior School, Clubhouse, Middle School Age.’  At Summerhill this was Class 2 where there was a balance of activity, teaching and library spaces.  There are 25-30 kids of multi-age 10 to 12+  They have lots of other resources and areas in the school and there are senior subject specialist teachers and students can sign up to timetabled taster lessons.

The Junior teacher teaches a severely limited literacy and numeracy curriculum.

The timetable is important because the kids sign up for most classes, although attendance is optional.( Leonard always offered every child timetabled Maths and Language slots. The students liked that.) Children who want to do more is an interesting question, but rarely a problem.  Some teachers would say that a couple of hours a week on numeracy and literacy is not enough.  Leonard says that children rarely need more especially if they arrive at the school at Class 2 level with reasonable literacy and numeracy.Always in contact with the Senior Language and Math teachers at Summerhill, Leonard says the reduced Class 2 Curriculum prepares them to move up to Class 3 and on to exam levels if students choose to do so.

The Reduced Formal Curriculum talks about teachers’ time not students’ time.  The RFC is what teachers offer. After students sign up a timetable is made that is displayed around the Class 2 area.  This is very different from the schools that have a morning meeting with a negotiated curriculum.  We prefer the idea of a core of curriculum offered in teacher-led classes.

Kids are not aware of the three circles but the three are happening all the time.

There is an objective of having ‘on offer consistency’ over the years so that children do not forget that there are core subjects.  Also, If a student spends a lot of time in free play there has to be a way for them to come back into the curriculum. This is done through teacher development of ‘flexible entry points’.

There is a progression from the Junior School /Clubhouse mentality to the Examination Mentality and there needs to be a planned manner of preparing kids to undertake formal learning later.  There needs to be some kind of informal teacher assessment of levels so that is smoothly possible. Leonard talks about the contextual assessment that is available using a family-style assessment.  You can make rapid judgements about children by general observations of small tastes of their work or their Project Room activity. This implies a pedagogy.  We are not saying you need to address things through creative learning, project work set up by the teacher. However, noticing the beginning, middle and end of a completely kid initiated project, or the ability of keen concentration at freely chosen tasks etc. gives good evidence of skills. That’s why hiring experienced teachers, who can quickly evaluate abilities and not stress over not having formal assessment is very important.


There is a human responsibility to give children accurate information so that they can make a bridge between their fantasy ideas of, for example, being a scientist or artist, and the reality of the world.

Freedom of choice is truly free.  Adults can work in a Project Area, but they do not design or lead the kid projects and activities.  There are no learning objectives or lesson plans. And the Formal Reduced Curriculum must be free of coerced attendance.

  • We are not spending much time thinking about the Senior School because we said that we want our teachers to learn about the school in the Clubhouse.  The senior teachers will have to be able to teach examinations but they must understand the kind of student experience they will be dealing with and the skills they have and might lack as they move to the Senior Level.  

We think that even at Summerhill the Senior School has often not been done well.  Although we say that Senior Students spend more time in the Formal Curriculum Circle they really do need a healthy circle balance. It is hard to deal with the stress and anxiety associated with examinations if an exam obsession takes hold at the Senior Level.  That is another reason for insisting the teachers start out lower down the school. So they too do not lose sight of free play, activity and project circles.

Exams become tokens for kids and they end up thinking more is better.  There is a root philosophical problem with that.  The idea that you have to start getting serious at 13 is yucky.  The UK system at least allows choice, unlike baccalaureate systems.

Measuring bullshit and testing bullshit can invade and must be resisted.

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