Welcome back after the Christmas holidays . . . This half term we’re mainly catching up with various happenings since the last blog, and thinking ahead to our forthcoming trip to Japan.
The recommended reading material for today is an interview in The Guardian with Peter Hyman, who will be opening a Free School in Stratford, East London, this coming September.
Tony Blair’s adviser starts a free school
Peter Hyman, is about to recruit staff for his new school. Unlike some that have already opened, his establishment will be all about innovation, innovation, innovation, he tells Janet Murray
There’s no need to dwell on the fact that Mr Hyman used to be a speechwriter for Tony Blair. There’s lots more important and exciting things that have happened in his life since then – the most important of which was taking the radical step to enter the teaching profession by starting at grassroots level and seeking training as a teaching assistant. This ought to be the first logical step in anyone’s teaching career, but usually isn’t. Respect to Mr Hyman for going down that road, which can be extremely rough and tough.
His first few days in the classroom left him on a high for weeks. But no amount of political fisticuffs could have prepared him for breaking up fights, trying to persuade students who “couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes” to write essays, or, in one memorable incident, dealing with a teenager who was threatening to climb out of a window, six floors up. Looking back, he can laugh about it, but going from “being relatively respected in Number 10 to being humiliated … shouted and sworn at, or whatever,” was tough.
Eight years on, though, he is about to open his own school. One of the 55 successful bids in the second wave of free schools, approved to open this year, it will educate four- to 18-year-olds in Stratford, in the London borough of Newham, one of the most deprived areas of the city.
The ambition, says Hyman, is to close the achievement gap between the “richest and poorest” and offer a curriculum that “prepares students for the 21st century”, hence its name – School 21.
Traditional methods of assessing students are no longer fit for purpose, he believes. “The idea that in any walk of life you would say ‘my judgment of you as a person is for you to sit down in a room for two and a half hours and regurgitate facts in a written exam’ is utterly, utterly broken as a system.”
So Hyman is throwing out the rulebook. Pupils at School 21 – due to open in September – will not follow a conventional timetable, with “one teacher and 30 children” and a set number of periods each day. Instead they’ll have a mixture of lessons, seminars, lectures, one-to-one coaching and, for secondary children, even free periods. They’ll study fewer subjects in isolation, and do more project-based work (assignments that combine history and maths, or business and languages, for example) and have lessons in thinking and debating skills.
Hyman is self-deprecating and funny on the topic of his early teaching career, but he is very earnest about School 21, which according to its website will be a “place of joy, discovery, wonder and imagination”.
It couldn’t be more different from Toby Young’s West London Free School, one of the first to open last September, where teachers wear black academic gowns and Latin is compulsory.
As well as offering children an alternative approach, Hyman believes he is offering teachers – he is about to start recruiting – something different. “I think a lot of new teachers coming into the profession are crying out for a model that is not just the same, lesson after lesson, the same teaching, the same way of doing things.” In his approach, “the teacher becomes the specialist, coach, mentor, project-based-learning facilitator, seminar debater … so you have six or seven strings to your bow rather than just ‘I’m here to give you nuggets of knowledge’.”
One of his biggest concerns is that the Tory right with their “over-romanticised view of their private and grammar school education of the 1950s” could drag education back into the past. “If people don’t speak up and say there is a modern curriculum that provides the skills young people need for the future, particularly in deprived areas like Newham … then that is a huge missed opportunity.”
Free schools, he says, are a good thing if they are “teacher-led, by people who have really thought about it, in areas of both need and deprivation”.
Amen to that.
School website: http://www.school21.org/