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Alternative schools – sometimes known as progressive schools - offer an unconventional approach to education. They suit parents who consider traditional schooling a straightjacket and children who don’t flourish in more traditional settings.

Why alternative schools?

As parents we are never quite sure if we are doing this right. There are no guidebooks to bringing up children and when it comes to schooling, there is nothing more likely to cause sleepless nights. So much emphasis is put on education that as a parent you feel you just have to get it right…but how do you find the right fit for your child?

With ever-increasing emphasis on exam results, it takes a brave parent to step off the mainstream carousel of fact cramming, regular homework and testing. If you are the sort of tiger parent who has already, in your mind’s eye, seen your child off to Oxbridge, alternative schooling probably isn’t for you. But one ‘alternative’ parent described it as a refuge from mainstream education where children are ‘criticised and their self-esteem damaged…like workers in a factory’.

What are they?

Alternative, or progressive schools offer their own individual, usually informal approaches to differing degrees. They range from King Alfred’s School in north London - where there are no school exams below year 10, no uniform and students are on first name terms with staff, but follow the normal curriculum – to Summerhill, in Suffolk, where lessons are entirely optional. Some, such as Steiner Schools and Brockwood Park, have a strong spiritual ethos, whilst others, such as Sands in Devon, are based on a democratic premise. Most will offer GCSE and A level teaching, not necessarily to the same year groups as in conventional schools, and often in a relatively limited range of subjects, but the school journey towards this point is likely to be very different.

How do schools differ?

There is no one-size-fits-all, but alternative schools do tend to have some characteristics in common:

  • Size – they tend to be relatively small, with generous pupil:teacher ratios. In some, such as Steiner schools, teachers stay with the same class for several years to build up strong relationships.
  • Non-authoritarian – some have head teachers, some don’t, but pupils (and sometimes parents) are generally involved in decision making, with opportunities for everyone to feel their views are valued.
  • Less structured curriculum – the learning journey tends to be less about passing exams and more about the process of learning through experience, problem solving and teamwork.

Many state and independent schools these days have embraced alternative education without going the full hog. From forest schools to student councils,, playful learning to break out curriculum days, there is no doubt that mainstream schools are exploring other options. However, while they may dip into other ways of educating, their main focus remains on teaching an exam-focussed, timetabled curriculum.

What are the possible downsides?

Pace - One parent complained that all are sometimes taught at the pace of the slowest pupil, resulting in bored bright ones.

Teachers - Skills of the teacher used to be a bit of a lottery, less so nowadays with tighter appraisals and continuous training. However, lack of rapport can be a problem if the teacher stays with the same class for years.

Structure - The apparent lack of structure can be a problem for some students and for parents.

Academics – So can the lack of rigour. ‘I would like them to insist a bit more in academic matters’.  ‘I’m not sure [my son] is applying himself properly…I think he is challenged, but only if he is interested.’ However, ‘My daughter may have got better exam marks at a different school but she got the grades she needed for the next step she was planning to take which is what mattered.’

Further reading:

Home education

Steiner-Waldorf schools

Montessori schools

Forest schools

The 'alternative' alternatives

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