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If you thought Steiner and Montessori schools were ‘alternative’, then take a look at The Guide’s ultimate alternative schools, so far removed from a traditional set up that some of them are world renown. Categorised as ‘learning for life’ these schools take traditional schooling and turn it on its head. There are literally a handful scattered through the UK. Think Sands School in Devon, Brockwood Park and Summerhill. They are one of a kind and completely individual.


Brockwood Park

Overview: As founder, educator and philosopher Krishnamurti, put it, ‘education [is]…not merely transferring what is printed on a page to your brain. Education may mean opening the doors of perception on to the vast movement of life.’ ‘This school is about learning to live, and understanding yourself as something worthy of inquiry.

Academic: ‘Not for those who want to purchase an off-the-shelf education with the assurance of a clutch of academic certificates to match.’ Those under 16 take three core courses: science and mathematics, humanities, and arts and crafts. The focus, in each, is on learning through first hand experience. ‘I learn something I want to learn; do what I want to do,’ said a student. Topic courses enable students to study subjects in greater depth. Languages depend on the skills of current staff. The only common courses here are inquiry time (discussing the way we live our lives) and human ecology (the study of our home planet in its broadest sense). Some students take A levels; mocks are often the first exams they have sat. IGCSEs offered but ‘it was clear that the principal couldn't really see why anyone would want to: “an easy option”.’ ‘[We] do think exams are important, but not as a reflection of worth or learning… Academic success should not be confused with excellence’.

Options: Games (football, netball, hockey, basketball) played ‘for the pleasure of the movement, for the beauty of the shot…but not for the winning’. Art popular; music ‘with the harmony it brings to body and mind’ also important, with regular informal concerts.

Background: Set up in 1969, it’s a boarding school of some 75 pupils (a third British, the rest international) aged 14-19 in 40 acres the beautiful Hampshire countryside, including the original kitchen garden, where students have human ecology lessons. It’s ‘run on the basis of collaboration, not competition…students have to learn about responsibility… everyone has to pitch in, or it doesn’t get done.’

Parents: Many are ex-Waldorf. ‘[It’s} very challenging for parents to have children at this school. Questions raised with the students touch the parents: about the future, human beings and existence…I am educated by my kids by their education at Brockwood Park.’

Staffing: Antonio Autor is ‘principal by name only: there is no hierarchy here; everyone has a voice and is heard, and everyone has the same salary, from cleaner to principal.’ Indeed, since he joined the school in 1987, ‘his jobs have ranged from gardener to teacher.’ Students said of their relationships with teachers: ‘teachers look at you like a person’; ‘chat any time’; ‘someone, always, has an ear for you. Always.’

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Overview: No hierarchy. Has ‘a democratic ethos that fosters trust, mutual respect and self-directed learning.’ Decisions ‘from humdrum practicalities and discipline issues to admissions and staff appointments’ are taken collectively by teachers and students at the weekly meeting.

Academic: ‘Helping children to develop as critical thinkers is paramount to our approach.’ They do prepare students for GCSEs – most take between six and nine when they are ready – but are more interested in ‘promoting self-discovery and personal development as essential factors in awakening innate talent and promoting self-directed learning.’ Many lessons go off-topic to explore interesting digressions. No compulsion to attend classes, and no subjects are compulsory, ‘but we only take on students who want to learn’.

Options: Sport can be ‘anything that is fun and physically active’ – whether tree climbing, swimming in the river, hockey or weight training. Tenor is ‘remarkably arty’. Art has its own building on two floors; woodwork thrives, as does metal welding. Not the obvious place for a classical musician, but offers a BTec in performing arts specialising in music and drama.

Background: Arose from the ashes of Dartington Hall in 1987, but co-designed by staff and students rather than a reinvention, ‘fuelled by dreams and intuitions, not certainties’. A school of around 60 11-17 year olds in a Victorian townhouse with nice garden in the middle of Ashburton.

Parents: Some are principled objectors to ‘factory schooling’, others have just found that the ethos suits their children, who may have floundered in mainstream schools, and for whom ‘Sands is a lifesaver.’

Staffing: All are qualified, most have worked in mainstream schools, and all are appraised by students as part of the selection process. Students ‘empty-classroom those they reckon aren’t up to it.’ Everyone chooses their academic tutor, and they draw up a timetable together. No staffroom; students and teachers eat and socialise together.

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Overview: Calls itself ‘the oldest children’s democracy in the world.’ It provides an ‘uncompromising, full-on, “free” education’, with no compulsion to attend any lessons. ‘The philosophy of the school is to encourage children to live their own lives, and make their own decisions’, and parents are kept at a distance, receiving reports only with their child’s permission.

Academic: Of secondary importance. Play is considered as important as formal lessons, which are optional. Each student is given a blank timetable at the beginning of term which they fill in as they wish. Offers the usual range of subjects including Japanese and Chinese (but not French). Most end up taking a few GCSEs, with variable results. Much teaching one-to-one.

Options: Football and tennis etc available; so are playing in the woods and making tree forts. Music important with good facilities for music tech and studio recording. Woodwork and metalwork taken seriously. But ‘boredom is considered an important ingredient of education’ and there is no compulsion to do anything.

Background: Founded in 1921 by AS Neill near Dresden, Germany; settled in Leiston in 1927, where it became one of the most famous and controversial schools in the world. Threatened with closure on several occasions, most recently in 1999 after a damning Ofsted report. The government’s case collapsed in court in the face of enormous protest from parents and students. Rough and tumble setting includes Victorian house in 11 acres of wooded grounds. Around 75 5-17 year olds, nearly all full boarders. Rarely takes new pupils after the age of 11.

Parents: The opposite of tiger parents, about two-thirds from overseas - Japan, Korea, Holland, China, Germany, France, Poland, Russia. Some from a home-schooling background or other alternative schools. They tend to be ardent advocates, no doubt due to ‘having continually to justify their choice of this kind of education.’

Staffing: Very much a family concern: principle Zoe Readhead is daughter of the founder and was born and brought up here, as were her four children, who are all involved in running the school. Nine full-time live in teachers.

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Further reading:

Home education

Steiner-Waldorf schools

Montessori schools

Forest schools

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