The curriculum causes people who start schools problems. In this post I want to offer my views on the importance of getting a right balance of formal, informal and free activity. I am responding to Nelly, in Latvia, who asked me to write on the topic. We work with people to design schools based on the Summerhill model.
When I was at Summerhill I had a strange job title: Curriculum Manager. You don’t usually associate the word “curriculum” with democratic education, but I think it is a good idea for people starting schools to think about it. What is the curriculum in your school and how is it delivered?
Summerhill School was a family business. Zoë and her family had a lifetime of experience in the school but no formal teaching qualifications. Their concern was to protect the freedom of the children; the curriculum had been a stick to beat the school with and they wanted a trained teacher to look after it.
At Summerhill teachers are expected to be professionals and offer good quality classes, but the school is a much richer experience than a daily trog from lesson to lesson. Kids do not have to go to those lessons and the feeling in the school is that they will not be missing much. The important part of growing up in the school is learning how to live in the community, exercise your freedoms and “get on with life.” And life is not channeled through a curriculum funnel.
Since the core values of the school are all outside the classroom, you might ask why bother with a Curriculum Manager?
You don’t invent a job if there is no need for it. Members of the family were great administrators, fantastic teachers and inspirational leaders, but they wanted the business of teaching and classes to be handled by a teacher. Since I had grown up in a different system, had a wad of formal qualifications in my back pocket and was responsible for administering the examinations, I took on the role. It was a role I shared with Ian, the Maths teacher and then with Leonard, the Class 2 teacher.
There were some basic problems. This post suggests how you might think about them.
Problems 1- the free curriculum
The first problem with the curriculum is defining what you mean when you use the term. It would seem obvious to say the curriculum is what is taught in lessons, but there is more to it than that. Even the English National Curriculum documents do not limit the curriculum to what happens in classrooms. They accept that the National Curriculum is only one part of what goes on in a school, the full curriculum being everything that happens there.
This can help a democratic school like Summerhill. There is a lot going on in the school and it all counts!
When Summerhill was facing its court case the teachers collected evidence for all the activities the children engaged in there. They used it to argue that Summerhill offered a “full and balanced curriculum” even though children did not have to go to lessons. These activities did not necessarily involve adults. According to the school’s assessment policy they were not even recorded or measured.
Summerhill did not need a manager meddling with free play and community activities. You do not need a Curriculum Manager for this. If you started managing it, it would quickly turn into some kind of fake alternative curriculum full of improving projects and games. Adults would start slipping attainment targets into the projects. You might end up with something that would appeal to the authorities but pervert the basic idea of Summerhill.
So my first point is this:
Let children have freedom, but don’t start measuring and assessing what they do. It is part of the curriculum only for the benefit of outside authorities who need a justification.
Problems 2- the formal curriculum
Summerhill has a formal curriculum. There are qualified teachers with subject specialisms whose job is to offer lessons in those subject areas. The school does not have a particular pedagogical model- it does not, for example, prioritise self-directed learning or project work. Compared with some innovative schools it can seem distinctly old-fashioned. Teachers offer structured classes with the explicit aim of getting kids through the examinations they take aged 16.
There are some problems with formal teaching:
- when children have the freedom not to go to classes it is easy for teachers to give all their attention to the few who are attending.
- When teachers focus on examination classes, children with better reading and writing skills have an advantage. They may not have learnt those skills in your school.
- it is easy to waste time and resources on learning that does not go anywhere- a couple of terms learning a foreign language, for example.
- there is not always continuity across the phases.
So my second point is this:
If you have a formal curriculum you have to manage it to ensure fair access to resources and teacher time.
Problems 3- designing and running spaces
Leonard came to Summerhill with a lifetime of experience in developing what he calls “appropriate habitat” for junior kids. He had created a system that he called Clubhouse Democracy where children ran spaces for themselves, making the rules and organizing materials and projects. In this model it was important for the teacher to share authority with the children. He did not have to control the space but the children had to know that, if things started to go wrong, he was still nominally in charge.
If you have spaces that children can control by themselves as Clubhouses, you can reduce the emphasis on the formal curriculum. It means that you need a different set of skills in your lead teachers. They need to be able to manage the Clubhouse environment, have the intelligence to resource them appropriately for each age group and the strength of character to exert their authority if things start to go wrong.
This is what we call the informal curriculum. At Summerhill in the past Houseparents were active in gardening, crafts, reading and writing, drama and music. None of these activities were a part of the formal curriculum, although in a mainstream school they might be. A good democratic school will promote the informal curriculum and create spaces where resources can accumulate. Over time the possibilities for children will become richer and more varied.
- You need adults with a unique range of skills and abilities to run these spaces. They almost certainly need training.
- The balance of formal-informal-free play is not easy to get right.
- There are the same issues with getting the cross phase continuity as there are in the formal curriculum.
So my third point is this:
Running effective informal learning spaces is not easy, and if you don’t get it right you can waste a lot of money on materials and resources.
The Curriculum Matters
When you are designing your school, you need a clear idea about the curriculum. I have spoken here about three components of the curriculum: free activity, the formal curriculum and activity spaces. I suggest you focus on the Core.
What you are doing for children who do not have skills in the core subjects of Maths, English and Science?
What you are going to say to inspectors when they ask you about these building blocks of traditional education?
If you have a tight formal curriculum and age-appropriate spaces for children to work on their own projects, you have made a good start.
Summerhill School works as a boarding school. It offers extraordinary opportunities that you are not going to be able to achieve in a day school. In a day school you have to ask yourself even more, “Why do children come to this school?” The school needs to offer children something they do not get at home or they will not want to come in the morning. It has to offer them some benefits that convince you, the parents and the children.
Freedom in a day school is not self-evidently a good thing unless it is well-presented. It will not necessarily give you a better school if you do not have the right attitude to authority-sharing. The children may not even be happier. They put up with a lot in conventional schools because they are told that it is something they have to do. When you take away compulsion you will create a whole set of new problems.
How are you going to present your school so that it offers your children real benefits?
This is the starting point for thinking about Curriculum Matters.