School21: A look inside “the school of the 21st Century”

School21 first appeared on my radar in October 2015, when two of it’s pupils (Year 8, I believe) kicked off Virgin’s Disruptors event “The Future of Education”, by interviewing Richard and Sam Branson on stage. Judging by how confident and articulate the pair were, I was not surprised to hear that “oracy” is at the heart of the curriculum there.

Soon after that, I got in touch with one of the School’s founders Ed Fidoe (who had also been there on the day), met him for a drink in East London, and was put onto a wait-list for an open morning there. Since the School opened it’s doors just a couple of years ago, interest has snowballed to say the least.

And understandably so. This place really does do things differently, rather than merely claim to be different.

I would hazard a guess that School21 is one of perhaps a dozen schools (if that) in the UK who are actually re-inventing education.

On a Monday morning in January 2016 my wait was over. The Open Morning consisted of a whistle-stop tour — which included a handy peek into school assembly — short presentations by 4 staff members there, and a glimpse into a couple of primary and secondary lessons.

Here’s what makes School21 unique:

1. Oracy is at the heart of the school

It has been found that the average school pupil utters just 4 words in lessons in any given school day. School21 believes that speaking is as important as reading and writing, and that every young person should be able to hold their own and freely offer their opinion — with the confidence to do so. From assembly to the classroom, it is clear that oracy is taken very seriously, and embedded in the ethos there.

2. Year groups and class sizes are small

There are just 75 in each year group, such that any single teacher, or student within a year group, can really get to know everyone (something to do with the limited number of deep social relationships we can physically build at any given point — there is science behind this). In comparison, my own school year group consisted of around 140 — though I recognised each face (it would have been worrying if I didn’t after 7 years in secondary school!), there were many I barely exchanged a word with, let alone “knew”.

Small class sizes also mean lesser teacher:student ratio, which is a good thing for obvious reasons.

3. Pupils receive group and individual coaching

Though there wasn’t enough time to dwell on this more, School21’s pupils receive regular coaching. The advantages of coaching in educational contexts is being demonstrated in Australia and the US, with highly encouraging outcomes emerging, and I have no doubt that the pupils here will benefit too.

4. Pupils sit in circles, rather than rows

This is to represent democracy and equality. We saw this in practice during the assembly. Small groups sat in circles, with the teacher amongst them — it seemed to work, and definitely had less of a ‘teacher is the authority’, ‘pupil is inferior’ feel to it. Headteacher Oli De Botton described how one can leave the circle, but has to apologise to the group before re-entering. #camaraderie

5. Assemblies are interactive

For Science Week, the topic of discussion (yes, discussion! No rambling headteacher, singing hymns, nor pupils struggling to keep bleary eyes open…) was around someone who had recently died whilst partaking in a trial for a new medical drug. In pairs, pupils stood in two rows and faced one another; the teacher leading the assembly would pose questions and statement for them to discuss in their pairs, across from one another. One such statement to critique on the day was something along the lines of: “It is fair to test drugs on animals, as the overall benefit gained is greater than the harm caused.” After each discussion, one row would move along so that pairings were constantly renewed.

A couple of observations I drew whilst being able to wander around and observe:

A) These kids were not shy! Save for one or two of a quieter disposition, most were more than happy to talk to one another
B) Levels of engagement were very high — especially for an assembly!
C) The teacher leading the assembly was incredibly passionate and enthusiastic
D) The pupils weren’t at all fazed by having a group of visitors wandering around and listening in on their discussions/debates (I supposed that they must be used to visitors). Either way, this was also impressive.

6. Project-Based Learning (PBL) is adopted, where complimentary topics from two separate subjects are blended

Having read about the use of this in America in particular, where there seems to be more alternative/new-age schools like School21, I was looking forward to seeing PBL in action. Teachers and classes for two subjects team up and explore a theme as a whole — it might be maths and science, for example, or art and drama.

The end goal is to produce something of real value that is then exhibited to the world.

This work is critiqued by experts — from artists to documentary makers to Holocaust survivors — relevant to that particular project. At the end of each project, pupils will stand in front of their work as it is exhibited to the public. Knowing this, we were told that they often take pride in their work and are motivated to produce it to a high quality — especially having to stand in front of it and answer questions if need be, not to mention critiqued by actual experts!

Impressively, teachers still manage to cover the syllabus for their respective subjects (understandably, not all teaching is done by PBL — subjects are also taught in the traditional standalone manner).

Joe, one of the friendly teachers who we heard from, talked us through the blended learning at the School. Interestingly, he had previously been a cynic but had now been converted. As Joe described, “It is about shifting the focus from me — the teacher — to the outside world. That way, they (the pupils) can see the whole point of what they’re learning — they are seeing it applied in the real world.” I suspect that School21 are onto something here.

7. Failure is viewed with a different lens

Around the school, various works of creation and art are displayed. Refreshingly, we are also allowed to see early drafts before the final piece of work. It is through encouraging perseverance that pupils, even the youngest, can learn and see how improvement can be made through practice. A fine example of Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” theory in action here, and a fantastic way to build an entrepreneurial frame of mind — one that will be ever crucial in the 21st century world of work.

8. Wellbeing is at the heart of the curriculum

Hurrah. Drawing on recent findings from positive psychology, wellbeing is one of the key components there too. Mindfulness is also being incorporated at the school. Development of the whole child is thus encouraged — again, ever-needed in the midst of increasing rates of mental ill health (stress, anxiety, and depression) which, ironically, is propagated at most schools due to the intense pressure of exams and expectation to ‘succeed’, which the UK’s youth are subjected to from far too young an age.

So there you have it. It’s quite difficult to convey everything into mere words and bullet points on a page. School21's pupils are motivated, engaged and enthusiastic — as well as confident and articulate. All of this is especially impressive, given that a significant portion of the students come from underprivileged backgrounds.

From walking around the school, it is quite clear that staff and students have a special thing going on there.

Perhaps one of the most important things to take away: School21 is encouraging it’s pupils to create actual value out in the real world, rather than merely pass exams — and exams which are becoming less relevant, given the ready access of information on any topic from any device, wherever you are in the world.

By the time our current primary school students become job seeking, it is estimated that a staggering 65% of jobs that will exist at that point in time, do not currently. All indications are signaling that the coming years will see us move further towards a world of autonomy and self-direction, with the rise of the independent freelancer (employee) as well as the entrepreneur (employer).

As Daniel Pink describes, we are now in the Conceptual Age of high-touch and right-brained thinking, rather than the Information Age of left-brained activity.

School21 is preparing it’s pupils for a future that isn’t here yet.

→ You can find out more about exactly how it is doing so, and get more of a feel for the place, here.

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