Our aim is to provide learning in a range of topics in order to prepare students for GCSEs. As much as focussing on topic learning, we aim to develop key learning skills throughout Y1, 2 and 3, so students are able to initiate their own learning. There is some learning by ‘rote’ but helping children develop as critical thinkers is paramount to our approach. Two afternoons a week there are ‘choice options’ where students choose what they do such as Japanese, yoga, drama, have extra tutoring in a subject, or just socialise, play games, cook cakes etc. The day always ends with fifteen minutes of ‘useful work’ where the whole school participates in tidying and cleaning up. This fosters ownership and care for the school. Students monitor the success of the cleaning rotas and ensure everyone contributes to the core of the school by defining clear boundaries for those who might want to avoid these chores.
We all respond differently to boundaries and structure but all of us, children and adults alike, benefit from some degree of both. Our timetable offers the key structure of the school day, and if a child needs it then most of their week can be spent in activities organised by adults. We encourage the Y groups to find most of their activities from within the timetable’s menu, and as children get older they seem to appreciate progressively more freedom and choice. They participate in more of the meetings, taking more responsibility for the school and are forced to organise their time more carefully in order to strike a balance between exams and school affairs. Once children move into the ‘O’ groups they work with their academic tutor to construct a GCSE programme. Most choose between six and nine subjects; sit some of them at the end of their second year of study and complete their third year by taking more. The three-year GCSE programme we have adopted allows us to educate fully and avoid blanket education through multiple choice. It does mean a longer GCSE experience but it offers the chance for more deep and profound learning.
We have found that lessons of thirty minutes in length works best for some classes, and an hour or longer for others. There is no school bell and students are responsible for keeping track of time and getting to their lessons – we see this as part of their learning to take responsibility for their school life. The timetable changes to some degree every term to fit in with the needs of students, staff and planned projects and events.
Although a timetable full of interesting subjects form the core of the day, some children benefit from a more flexible approach, while others need a very tight structure to develop their potential. As teachers we try to remain alert to the different rhythms of each child and together your child and their personal tutor will agree on their own learning play using the timetable as its basis.
One of the advantages of the school of this size, is that we can make decisions as a whole community to suspend the timetable and respond to the needs of the moment – a day of snow on the moor, the first hot day of summer, the need for a whole school meeting that may take all day, a workshop organised for students – many events will occur during your child’s time with us at Sands – all designed to respond to the students or the need for the school to hear everyone’s point of view. We aim to strike a balance between consistently delivered lessons, individually tailored learning programmes, the democratic community and our ability to respond flexibly to the mood of the school and the desire to keep Sands fun and relevant. The result may look a little chaotic and challenge our demand for the predictable but the children seem to flourish in a school that to them is vibrant and responsive to them.
Sands Core Learning Principles
At the root of education at Sands there are some core principles, some of which lead to a different style and rhythm of learning than conventional schools.
- Some of the best learning happens outside the classroom
We believe that some of the best learning happens outside of the classroom when a child asks a question that is pertinent to their situation and interests at the moment. The question may arise within a lesson, come out of a school meeting, within a tutorial, or relaxing over a cup of each with staff and peers. We believe it is essential that your child has the freedom to respond to their own interests, curiosity and drives. This may manifest in them pursuing an interest or project instead of attending a timetabled lesson, or perhaps organising a school event. As such it makes sense to design school days that aren’t crammed with lessons and give time for informal learning to take place. This kind of learning makes up a significant part of the Sands experience but is difficult to assess and quantify and requires placing trust in both your child and the school.
- Each child experiences learning differently
At the very heart of our model of learning is the child, each unique and each with different needs. Learning is a very different experience for each child – even within the same classroom, and more fundamentally, for some, conventional classroom based study doesn’t suit them at all and they need a different and tailored timetable. Because of our small class sizes and high staff to student ratio we are able to respond to your child’s individual learning style and needs. Every staff member will get to know your child well and appreciate their strengths and areas of challenge.
- Close relationships with staff supports learning
Our staff enjoys the experience of Sands because they enjoy the company of and challenges of being with this age group. There is no staff room, nowhere to hide from the energy and demands of teenagers. We all believe that children are so much more than automatons that move from class to class and have created a school day that gives them and us time to be together socially and academically. Although this absorbs potential classroom time it does result in us having the chance to show the children over tea, lunch, on the spiral staircase, sitting on the lawn together, climbing, playing sport and music together that we are, like them, much more than classroom technicians.
- Children need support challenge
When children are ready they all benefit from being challenged and brought away and out of their ‘comfort zones’. The informality of the atmosphere in school doesn’t preclude pushing individuals or groups to face difficult tasks – and discovering that overcoming challenges is a really worthwhile thing. Determination and motivation are necessary life skills if found at the right time and with sensitive support. So you will find your children in a stress about learning lines for plays, or with deadlines for projects or with exam work to complete that makes them stress and worry. We don’t want to protect children from these events. They will receive lots of support and sympathy but also a fair amount of pressure and badgering to ensure they cross the hurdles and develop these essential life skills.
- Children need the freedom to make choices and learn from their decisions
Contrary to popular opinion, giving a degree of autonomy seems to reduce stress and anxiety. In fact, the invisibility children feel in bigger schools with lack of real choice seems to be at the root of their unhappiness. The children who join us, after being told they have failed the education system, rediscover their pleasure in learning, once they feel they can control their school lives and make choices about what and how they learn.
Learning to use this freedom wisely is all part of the Sands experience. Your children will make some unwise decisions and approach school life in ways that seem immature to you, but learning to make good decisions it not something that we naturally do or suddenly discover at eighteen. In fact, the opposite seems to be true in the current culture. We believe that given the freedom to make mistakes, experiment with choice and learn about themselves in the process your child will become more and more skilled at making good decisions. It is certainly our experience so far, though the journey there can be quite a test for us all. Patience and a good sense of humour can help us survive it!