Last week I went to a screening of ‘Most Likely to Succeed’, the Sundance nominated film about what education could be. The star of the film is High Tech High in San Diego (featured here), a place where teachers have the freedom to shape projects that culminate in public exhibitions. The film itself was interesting although sitting next to my anthropologist/social work lecturer/documentary film maker/husband, was a little distracting as he texted me his critique of the film and how it was made.
I was also doing a pretty good job of distracting myself with the plethora of emotional reactions I seemed to be going through watching the film. You can’t do anything much in life without recognising who you are and how this affects your experience. I am a mother of a 14 year old and an 11 year old, was educated in the 1970s and 1980s in London at a hippy primary school and then a girls grammar school that took me on despite my failing the entrance exam. I did an anthropology degree, have a PGCE that specialised in alternative education and a Masters degree in Education. I taught English for over ten years in Jerusalem in the 1990s and early 2000s in democratic and alternative schools. I helped set up, and worked at, The Key for 8 years, supporting school leaders and governors to run their schools. Now I work for the school-led charity, Challenge Partners. I am a long-suffering school governor too. It would be safe to say I live and breathe education. So clearly, my viewing experience was coloured by my life so far and as I watched, I also listened to my own thoughts and reactions.
As a teacher
I taught in three schools that were really like the one in the film and as part of my teacher training, visited several others across Israel. It made me nostalgic and excited to see it again on screen in Hi Tech High, and to remember that wonderful time. We had complete freedom to decide what we taught and how. The curriculum was designed by each teacher, there was no monitoring of their classroom, homework or lesson plans. We wrote our own tests and decided when, what and how frequently to test the children. There were national GCSE equivalent tests at the end of year 12. The kids usually did well. It was the most incredible experience. It made me a passionate, hard working, dedicated, curious and committed teacher. I wanted each child to thrive and shine, I loved my subject and my classes were vibrant, varied and the children were, on the whole, enthusiastic learners. It wasn’t without its challenges and difficulties but we worked these through, the general tone was one of exploration, dialogue, understanding and practical solutions. The school was a happy and purposeful place.
On the other hand, I sometimes look back at my teaching experience as I do on my neglectful parents during my 1970s childhood entirely devoid of any health and safety awareness. The amount of times we could have died as we lolled about in the back of my mum’s Morris Traveller without seatbelts, or ran about the streets playing unattended sometimes laughing off the passing paedophile’s pathetic attempts to lure us into his car, or hopping over the tube rails for a dare. If I hadn’t been streetwise and vigilant, it could have been tragic indeed. And if I hadn’t been the massively enthusiastic and reflective practitioner I was, I could have just done not very much with my students and coasted my way through the years. I found that some of the children at the schools where I taught really suffered from the amount of freedom they had. It was their parents who had wanted this for themselves as children, and were living vicariously through their children by giving them relief from the oppressive discipline they hated in their own childhood. With such permissive parents, lacking in clear boundaries, some children were really ill equipped to deal with freedom of this kind and it was exhausting trying to meet their needs.
As a mother
I felt remorse, guilt and anxiety – why don’t my children have this kind of education? Why have I been so passive about sending them along with the herd to normal schools? Have they missed out and been compromised by restrictive educational experience that has increasingly been narrowed by the obsessive managerialist measurement culture? Or have they been strengthened by having to eke out creative, autonomous, and alternative educational experiences despite being on the factory line of bog standard English education?
I felt defensiveness and derision – I didn’t have to decide whether to send my own children to the schools where I taught in the end, although I agonized over it, because we moved to England when the oldest reached reception age. There seemed no choice except to go to the local primary school and hope for the best. What is shown in the film is all very well but if this school happened in this country, it would be only a very certain kind of parent that sent their kid there. It would be swamped by anxious yummy mummies and would fall foul to the fate of many of the free schools of its ilk. It was my experience of my hippy local primary school in the 1970s where we learnt Beatles songs, carpet weaving and were left to self-directed learning from laminated cards in Learning Lab boxes that led to my failing the 11+ and spending my entire secondary education gasping to barely keep up.
As a working person
Throughout my career at management and director level, when I interview people for roles in my team, I sometimes find the more impressive the grades on their CVs are, the more lacking in creativity and unable to cope with autonomy they are. The Hi Tech High model of team work gives importance to going through a process and not just to the output, respect is given to exploration, for taking the time, and this really appeals to me. We seem to be racing people through life, meting out the stages of development they need to reach from birth to graduation and ticking them off to satisfy our own need for measurement, league tables, evidence of productivity and the like. We have a generation of young people in their early careers that are restlessly running on underdeveloped tip toes before they have developed the stability needed when they hastily learned to walk.
My conclusion will always be the same. I am ever the relativist in my outlook. There’s room for everything and a one-size-fits-all approach never works. I would love there to be room for such freedom and depth of thought and experience for all children. I believe that some schools do manage to build in some pockets of exploration and autonomy while marching along to the exhausting demands of the system as a whole.
By way of example, while we were watching this film, my youngest was away for the week at a wonderful life-changing experience through her school. Fifteen Yr 7 to Yr 9 children were sent away to a writers’ retreat of incredible calibre in Shropshire. It’s especially amazing that she was chosen as the school has recognised that she is an articulate and enthusiastic writer and that her SATS scores and dyslexia shouldn’t be allowed to be an impediment to this. “I wish my school was always like that”, she repeated over and over for the coming weeks. What she loved was the freedom and structure that interplayed so well. The autonomy mixed with clear guidance from professional writers. They cooked their own meals and went for country walks. They were able to steep themselves in a project day after day, after day, were encouraged to focus on depth, to make mistakes, and to be treated as writers by writers. It’s not the first experience of this kind they have had at the school, and it won’t be the last. So instead of beating myself up for not banding together with fellow parents and creating a free school that provides the North London version of Hi Tech High for my children, I think I will continue to support my local comp that treads a confident line between compliance and creativity.