Page last updated at 17:19 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Challenge to one-size education

Creativity is prized in many alternative schools

Mainstream education has much to learn from alternative independent schools, a leading head teacher has said.

Martin Stephen, High Master of St Paul's School in west London, said the education system too often followed a "one-size fits all" model.

He said there had been much noise about change in education over a decade but no change in how pupils were taught.

Alternative independent schools often have unusual methods and give pupils a big say in what goes on.

Dr Stephen was a guest speaker at a conference of 17 schools which describe themselves as progressive independent or radical independent schools.

He said many mainstream schools had only recently brought in innovations such as school councils, which progressive schools had always had.

Co-education - once considered outrageous - had also been pioneered by them.

There has been a massive growth in testing and measurement and very little change in the way pupils are taught
Martin Stephen, St Paul's School

"There has been more noise about change in education in the past 10 years than there has been for an awful long time but there has not been change at all," he said.

"There has been a massive growth in testing and measurement and very little change in the way pupils are taught.

"There has never been more of a need for some schools to introduce new ideas, challenge the system and most of all focus on young people," he told delegates.

He said there was a "horrible tendency to standardise education, go for the all-beige, one-size fits all approach".

"Your schools are a massively needed antidote."


The conference was organised by Bedales school in Hampshire and Frensham Heights in Surrey and involved both teachers and students.

At Frensham Heights, students call teachers by their first names and assess lessons, feeding back their thoughts to staff.

Head teacher Andrew Fisher says "student voice" is very important.

"If you are in lessons for six hours a day you are in a good position to say what you think of them."

There is a need for schools like this in a changing world
Andrew Fisher, head, Frensham Heights

He said there was a need for progressive, independent schools to "stay strong" and keep innovating.

"Our key thought this morning was about bravery in the curriculum, in trusting students and in taking risks.

"I feel there is a need for schools like this in a changing world where there are issues about global warming and resources, about why the banking world has collapsed and where overt competition is encouraged.

"We advocate independence, creativity, relationships and spontaneity, which might be more effective in the long term for all of us."

At Bedales, there is also a big emphasis on "student voice" and on "learning through doing".

Students take GCSEs and A-levels, but also some in-house qualifications and can choose their own courses.

Pupils tend to a flock of sheep on the school's grounds and have reconstructed a barn using old-fashioned methods.


Both Bedales and Frensham Heights were set up in the early years of the 20th century.

Frensham Heights was set up by two women reformers, with what the school says was a "liberal, humanising agenda for education".

"The practical implication of the philosophy was to guide the child's instincts and impulses into constructive activities," says the school's website.

Bedales' founder, J H Badley, wanted to educate the whole person - "head, hand and heart".

The school says it aims to nurture "individuality, initiative and an enquiring mind".

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