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An Essay On My Dream School

The Richard Dawkins Humanist Conservatoire is so far only a gleam in my eye, but once someone rich enough to convince the government that they ought to be running a secondary school comes into partnership with me, we will make it a reality together. And I already have a pretty good idea of what my dream candidate for Michael Gove's "free school" programme would be like.

We humanists do not believe in faith schools – we think children of all faiths should go to the same school, and all the religious traditions there should enrich each other. Unfortunately, other faiths like to lock their children away from external influences, and faith schools have mushroomed until now religions control one third of all state schools. We can't beat them – not yet, anyway – so we are joining them.

Why "conservatoire"? Back in the 1980s, the then education secretary, Kenneth Baker, decided that "schools" had come to mean dreadful places where pupils ruled and teachers had lost the plot, and introduced City Technology Colleges. In 1997, David Blunkett saw that the word "college" had now gone downmarket too, and called his version "academies". I am staying one step ahead in this relentless verbal gentrification.

I have been a teacher (a very long time ago), a parent, and a writer about education, and RDHC will be a school where I would be happy to teach or send my children. It would reject educational dogma as firmly as it rejects religious dogma. On the teaching of reading, for example, the left shouts "real books" while the right shouts "phonics"; and the voice of the classroom teacher, who knows you need both, is drowned out. We will not choose what we do because it has the correct political label, but because it helps children to learn and to be happy.

One way to ensure that happens is to let teachers, parents, pupils and the local community run the school. So unlike all existing academies, the sponsor will not have an inbuilt majority on the governing body. We will make elected parent and teacher governors powerful, and have at least two elected pupil governors.

As a humanist school, we will pride ourselves on our teaching of religion. Other faith schools have agitated for and been given the right to discriminate against teachers and pupils who are not of the correct religion, but we will not. Our children will learn about all beliefs. Children can cope with the fact that adults believe different things. And we see nothing but good in the idea of a Muslim learning mathematics from a Sikh, or an atheist being taught English by a Catholic.

So, no spying to find out whether a prospective parent had been guiltily sneaking into church. No demanding evidence of a subscription to New Humanist. Personal letters confirming faithlessness from Dawkins himself will get you nowhere. Even being the object of a fatwa will not get you in. If we are oversubscribed – which I confidently expect we will be – we will take pupils strictly on the criterion of proximity to the school.

This is not just because selection at 11 is wrong, though it is. It is also because a successful school is rooted in its community. Families know each other, know the school and care about it. So, not for us these bullying, bureaucratic home-school contracts, designed to make the parents feel responsible for anything that goes wrong. We will involve parents as a part of the daily life of the school. Those with time and skills to teach will be cajoled into coming in and helping us.

There will also be no parents evenings. Instead, there will be constant dialogue between parents and teachers, and we will have a system of mentors to make sure that happens. Every child will have one of our staff assigned as his or her personal mentor – and, crucially, staff will have a reduced teaching load if they take on mentoring. The mentor will remain with the child throughout their time at the school, and the two will be expected to get to know each other very well.

Of course, our admissions criteria will mean that we get our share of the children who are hardest to teach, and among those will be a few who cannot read properly when they arrive at the age of 11. If you cannot read, you cannot learn anything else. Most of what is done in other lessons goes over your head, and you end up disaffected and disruptive, leaving school with no qualifications and no prospect of work. Prisons are packed with adults who never learned to read properly.

We will adopt an idea put to me by teacher Phil Beadle, author of that splendid practical manual How To Teach. At RDHC, every child's reading ability will be assessed when they arrive at the age of 11. Those who cannot read properly will go straight into a reading recovery group. We will not try to teach them anything else until we have taught them to read fluently.

Reading recovery, as originally formulated in New Zealand, is aimed at younger children, but we will adapt it for 11-year-olds. It requires some long sessions of one-to-one teaching, which makes it very expensive. But we will find the money. This work will have first call on our resources. When times are tough and we have to cut, it will be protected.

This will cut down the number of children who make learning impossible in the classroom and make other children's lives miserable outside it. It will not eliminate them, though, and however good your teachers, they will get nothing useful done while these pupils remain.

The author Francis Gilbert writes of a school where he once taught: "Just walking down the corridor was hazardous. Frequently, children would rush up behind me and hit me on the back of the head, shouting out, 'Gilly, Gilly, how are ya doing, mate?'" When he complained, his head of year said he needed to get a sense of humour. Beadle had a pupil who regularly called him a "fucking idiot". In our school, the boundaries will be drawn widely, but they will be fixed. Cross that boundary and the sky falls in on you.

We will not flinch from calling in the police. Our staff are not police officers, nor are they social workers or probation officers; they are teachers. Why should they, or our pupils, be less safe in the corridors of their school than on the streets? Bullying, abusing staff and making lessons unbearable will not be tolerated, and those who do it will be excluded.

But there is a problem with that. In the days when local authorities had power and some disposable money, they could provide the specialist places these children need. Today, the local authority, whatever it says in the 1944 Education Act about its duty, probably has nowhere suitable for them to learn. By throwing them out, we are condemning them to a life on the margins, and probably a life of crime. So the RDHC will have its own pupil referral unit, on another site some distance from the main school.

And we will confine this unit's population to those children who damage the learning experience of others. We are not going to fill it up with people who break rules. We do not like seeing our pupils smoking in the street, and we will tell them so, but it is their health they are damaging. We do not approve of truanting, but it is not a hanging offence. Our staff have better things to do than go round measuring the length of pupils' hair, or enforcing a uniform code. David Cameron says we "all know" what a good school is; it is a school where all pupils wear uniforms. But we think the PM is talking tosh. A very wise headteacher – Sean O'Regan, of Edith Neville School in London – told me: "People think a uniform is a short cut to raising standards of behaviour, but it is not."

I learned a few things about how schools should be laid out from Paul Kelley, headteacher at Monkseaton high school in Tyneside and best known as the Laura Spence head (Spence was the pupil turned down by Oxford despite brilliant A-levels, made famous by Gordon Brown). Kelley has no office – you can find him hunched over a desk pretty well anywhere in his school, with pupils walking round him. He does have a staff room, but it is surrounded by glass, so everyone can see in. Most people think this is a formula for disrespect. At Monkseaton, the pupils have discovered that the sight of a teacher drinking tea is terminally tedious.

As far as possible, our common spaces are going to be places where pupils and teachers mix naturally. We will have as few mysteries and no-go areas as we can get away with. Both sides learn that the other can be quite good company, and the presence of teachers cuts down on casual bullying. Teachers will be encouraged to eat with pupils as often as possible. Beadle writes: "Given that school dinners are repulsive mulch you wouldn't feed to a pig, a child wolfing them down enthusiastically with snaffling relish will tell you something very important about that child: that they are not properly looked after, and you must take special care of them in lessons."

We cannot divorce ourselves from the target culture, but we can make sure it does not run our lives. If our results are not quite as good as they were the previous year, we will not consider ourselves to have failed, and if other people think we have, then that is their stupidity. This stand will enable us to avoid using the national curriculum as an excuse to teach to the test. Take English as an example. It is possible to teach English Literature to GCSE by taking individual scenes from the Shakespeare play you are studying and not reading the whole text. You can pass the exam, but it is a pointless way of teaching. Our English department will use the whole text. In many schools, only pupils who do well in English language are allowed to take English literature at GCSE. All our pupils, without exception, will study English literature to GCSE.

Schools are forced into all sorts of stratagems to stop pupils from doing exams they might not do well in, so as to keep their apparent results up. Our children will take any exams they wish to take. Our priority will be the children we teach, not our place in the league tables. Everyone says that, but we mean it.

Recently, I have engaged with colleagues at my place of work to respond to the question, “What will school look like in 5 years?” We were encouraged to dream about the possibilities of what might be….

Therefore, in the spirit of messiness and complexity, and with the understanding that relational trust is all important, I put together this piece of “My Dream School”.

My dream school is one which strives to develop literate and numerate students who harness the power of digital technology to become ‘self-regulated learners’. Students would do this through learning opportunities which provide them with greater choice of subject matter, learning methods and pace of study. Furthermore, I dream of a school where students are granted the autonomy to challenge themselves and take risks to collaborate, co-create and think critically through learning experiences which are relevant to the real world.

As such, my Dream School acknowledges every student with the dignity and respect they deserve through the provision of student voice and student agency. The school supports of parents as the primary educators, enables children to become young adults who can recognise, have access to, and take up opportunities that will grow them as compassionate people with integrity and moral strength to make right and just decisions.

I dream with the end in mind and use the following questions to provoke thought

  • What will be required of students when they leave school?
  • What will be required of students who started Year 7 this year and leave school in 2020?
  • What will be required of Kindergarten students who leave school in 2027?

Furthermore, this Dream School prepares students for post school life in a world which is increasingly a different one to when their parents left school. In saying that, we must remember, the world will be different for our students in their early years of primary school as compared to our students due to graduate at the end of this year. Principles for Future Employees guides my thinking…..

I dream of a school where we dare attempt to measure ‘hard to measure skills’ of communication, collaboration, critical thinking creativity, innovation and leadership.  Why? because those skills, rather than test scores, will be more important for students in the world that awaits them…..

I dream of a school where we value teamwork as much as individual brilliance. Let me explain…..

American University, Professor Stephen Courtwright argues that organisations, especially in technology, are more than likely to be team based. He cites longitudinal survey of Fortune 1,000 companies which found in 1980 that less than 20 percent of companies had team-based structures; in 1990 that became 50 percent, and by the year 2000, 80. Now, almost all have 100% team-based. He then concludes, “It is more important for children to be taught how to gain the trust of teams, rather than the adoring approval of their manager.”

Martin Luther King said, “I have a Dream!” He did not say, “I have a Strategic Plan”. It is in that spirit, but very much without the charisma and courage, I offer (and in no particular order) …..


  • Where big, open-ended questions are valued more than answers for closed, state based, mandated tests.


  • Where Teach Meets and Dream Meets occur more regularly than Staff Meetings.


  • Where Vision and Trust inform School Annual Plans as much, if not more than data.


  • Where Digital Literacy and Network Literacy are valued as much, and measured as often, as English Literacy.


  • Where Maker Spaces are seen as Learning Spaces;
  • Where Coding sits as a subject along-side English and Maths; and,
  • Where students do not ask, “Miss, does this count towards my report?”


  • Where digital technologies are used for real time reporting and even replace summative semester reports that can be up to five months old.


  • Where classrooms look like playgrounds and playgrounds are seen as classrooms.


  • Where BOSTES mandated hours are delivered to their minimum, therefore freeing up time students to engage in self-regulated interest projects where they set the marking criteria and then have peers provide feedback without marks or grades.


  • Where a teacher is judged as much as the ‘colour’ of their classroom as they are on the ‘content’ they deliver.


  • Where the timetable serves the needs of learning rather than the delivery of subjects.


  • Where risk is valued more than compliance!
  • Where questions are followed by more questions rather than the quickest answer we can find; and,
  • Where the process of learning is valued, measured and assessed as much as the end product.


  • Where teachers work with other teachers and teams of students by planning, preparing and co-creating real world learning experiences .

Finally, I DREAM OF A SCHOOL….where student voice and student agency inform more than strategic plans and annual goals.After all, schools look radically different when we see it through the eyes of children. This requires teachers to unlearn and relearn their role.



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