Some Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
- Are lessons compulsory?
One of the fundamental questions we ask students interested in joining Sands is do they want to learn and take some responsibility for their own education. We only offer places to children who want to learn although the parameters of that learning are broad and individual to each child’s situation. So although it is not compulsory to study everything on the timetable it is expected that all children will make a positive choice about their curriculum and attend all the classes they have arranged to join. Each child chooses an academic tutor and along with class teachers they are helped to make decisions about their programme of study.
The younger students are encouraged to study the broadest possible range of subjects. We respect that some, even very young children, know what they want to study, and equally know what they don’t want to study. However, our role as adults is to help the child discern between subjects they are frightened of, have had bad experiences in previously or are too lazy to study, versus those they reject for positive reasons. We certainly don’t want any child prevented later in their school career from studying a subject because they whimsically rejected taking it during their first few years.
Once a subject is selected there is then an expectation that the child attends the vast majority of the classes in that subject. Of course, there is still spare for the odd floppy day but teachers and tutors all stress the benefit of regular attendance. There is always a balance to strike between the need to help children see the benefit of ‘choosing’ to attend class and being able to avoid class when they really can’t cope. A class full of students who actively want to study and have made the conscious effort to attend is a fantastic and rewarding learning experience: a class dominated by unwilling students is both unrewarding and creates the sort of negative relationships that plague other schools. By acknowledging their contribution and helping students reflect on their successes, teachers and tutors affirm that self-discipline and tenacity leads to some wonderful achievements. However, because of the size of the school we have the luxury of being able to change the timetable to facilitate exciting events and projects. This may mean your child will occasionally choose to miss some classes in order to do something else that is on the curriculum. For example, students may negotiate with their class teacher to help cook school dinner, instead of attending their regular class. Because of the high staff to student ratio, it is easy for students to catch up on missed subject matter. Learning takes many shapes and it need not be in half hour slots. The benefit of a whole morning or a whole day doing one thing probably far outweighs the odd class missed.
Un-negotiated, whimsical avoidance of class in order to socialise or do things that could be better done at home will be picked up on. This doesn’t mean it never happens – it may be valuable for a student to go through that process in order to learn that they want to do something different. Our aspirations as educators are to make learning sufficiently rewarding that students want to fill their days with positive choices and a rewarding and challenging timetable of classes. So rather than viewing classes as compulsory or not, we view the school as a place where the majority of the students are so excited by classes that learning is really hard to avoid.
- How will my child adjust to a different sort of school?
Sands isn’t that radically different to many other schools. The day revolves around a timetable and the vast majority of students go to all their classes. Exams play a central role in the school year and we do quite conventional things like school plays, camps, outdoor trips and sport. Yet clearly there are differences that will need some adjustments on the part of your child. We find that for some children the adjustment is automatic and easy and for some it is a longer process.
Having the opportunity to help design one’s own timetable and to have more ‘free time’ is terribly exciting and not everyone gets it right straight away (irrespective of age). Some lessons have a much more informal atmosphere than in other schools and this can take some adjustment. A relaxed and flexible atmosphere works really well for some and they flourish; others do need to have more structure and rigour. Both approaches are available within the school through various teaching styles – some more classically auto-centric teachers through to teachers who encourage children to take responsibility for the atmosphere and discipline within the class. We don’t impose a way of teaching upon staff but do employ adults whom we know care about children, respect them and enjoy teaching. All have high expectations for their pupils, though they may go about the process of delivering their subjects in quite different ways.
- How important are GCSE’s at Sands?
Every student reaches a point at which they express an interest in getting qualifications. Although the GCSE is in many ways flawed, it does give teenagers a real challenge to face and that age group does seem to lack rites of passage. Of course it also represents an essential bit of currency for movement on to college and shows that they know how to work to deadlines, complete complex tasks and cope with the stress of exam conditions. All those skills are worthwhile achieving and most teenagers at Sands want to be able to show that they have the same talents as people from other schools. Although it is possible to move onto college with good references and a portfolio of work from Sands, the GCSE is a standard qualification that everyone understands.
We have the luxury of being able to offer a 3 year GCSE programme that allows time to study a broad range of subjects and still participate in the democratic process and adventures the school offers. It also allows us to tailor the exam programme to each student’s needs and then we know they’ll be able to face exams when they are ready. So the exams are as important as any other enterprise at Sands. The students want to sit them and generally we find teaching them rewarding. In the absence of an equally respected internal qualification we will continue to offer GCSE to all the students.
- What about life after Sands – does the school prepare children well for sixth form college, university and work?
Every student sits exams. The average is six or seven though some sit many more. Colleges require five good GCSE grades for entry onto A-level courses, though fewer for many of the vocational courses. Using a combination of GCSE’s, references, portfolios of work, LAMDA qualifications and successful interviews, all our students who want to go to college, do so and the drop-out rate once there is less than for students from other schools. Probably the students at Sands have thought more about the courses they wish to study and know how to communicate their needs to the tutors better. Colleges often comment on how confident and keen the students from Sands are. The adjustment to the bigger schools, though daunting in the first few weeks, does not seem to be a insuperable handicap and much less of a problem than that facing mainstream students who tend to see adults as the enemy.
We don’t have exact figures for the number who go onto university, but it seems from the contacts we have maintained that many do go on to university between the ages of 18 and 23 and even later for some. Many delay entry in order to work and travel. Then when they have found the appropriate course they enter into the potentially frightening world of study debt, at least knowing that they are studying something for which they have a passion. Certainly attending Sands is not a barrier to university entrance and some would argue the opposite – that universities are looking for ‘unique’ candidates who communicate well and really know why they are studying a particular subject. Ten A* at GCSE and 4 A grade ‘A’ levels no longer mean the sort of candidates who will survive university and many colleges are now looking to design their own entrance exams to help identify potentially excellent graduates.
So what about the world of work? Leavers have gone onto careers as wide-ranging as cartography, the ambulance and fire service, web design, catering, law and, of course, teaching. Attending Sands does not predispose students to particular liberally orientated careers. All it seems to ensure is that young people will have the courage to find careers that reflect their true character and interests. Sands people seem to avoid careers that they fall mindlessly into and spend twenty years regretting. If you spend six years in a school that values your opinion and encourages you to make well-reasoned decisions, it is reasonable to assume that you are better prepared to find the right career rather than a job with the best salary or safest career profile – not that it wouldn’t be great to have a high salary, assured career longevity and job satisfaction.
- Has the school a homework policy?
There is no standard school policy. Each teacher has their own and this varies from class to class and even student to student. However, there are some general rules that tend to apply. We would not just set homework to keep children busy at home, but we would give any child work to do at home if we felt it would benefit them or build on a real interest they’ve shown in school. When one teaches small groups it is possible to cover huge amounts of ground and hence homework is often not necessary. Additionally, teaching students who have made an active choice to be in class means that very little time is wasted in classroom and behaviour management.
As students progress through the school more homework is set because the amount of curriculum to cover at GCSE requires more than just class time. Teachers always explain why homework is being given, but it does become a more important element in a student’s life once they embark on exam study, particularly if they want to achieve the higher grades.
Typically the younger (Y) group would expect to receive 1-2 homeworks per week. The older (O) group would typically receive 3-4 homeworks per week, varying in length from thirty minutes to an hour’s duration, and in their final year would be expected to do homework in each subject amounting to about five hours per week. Although this is not cast in stone it is a useful guide and means that you should expect your child to have some homework to do in any week. Of course there are exceptions but its probably worth helping your son or daughter make a quiet workspace at home, a place to do their own study and create some patterns and rhythm in their out of school work.
- As a parent how much say do I have in school affairs?
At present, parents have no voting rights in the school and so their influence can only be indirect via their child’s tutor, staff meeting, the PTA or by a request to attend the School Meeting to have an idea heard by staff and students. The reasons for this are two-fold – firstly, to ensure that individual parents or well‑meaning adults are unable to change the school to fit their own personal views of what the school should be, and secondly to reinforce to the students that they have a central voice in school affairs and that their contribution is essential. (You’d be amazed how many children in progressive schools worldwide believe that the authority they have is tokenistic and reliant upon the goodwill of adults and as such engage half‑heartedly in the democratic processes).
Parents can play an advisory role and we are always willing to be lobbied in staff meetings or through the PTA. In fact, the school has changed and improved as a result of input from parents, but we need to make sure that we do nothing that would encourage the children to feel they own the school less. However, at present we are looking at how to actively discover parents’ opinions on key issues that influence them as well as their children, eg the cost of camps and others trips, school fees, etc. We are considering some sort of parent referendum that would give parents a say on these issues and help inform the School Meeting. We are also very happy to have help from parents in the garden, the kitchen, decorating, etc and although this may appear to have little do with your influence, parents who do spend time at Sands during the school day invariable say how valuable it is and how it informs them as to the workings of the school.
- Promoting good behaviour
The school meeting has created an approach to discipline that deals with infringements of school rules. The approach has evolved over twenty years and applies to all members of the school irrespective of age or position. New students have most of the key rules explained to them in their preliminary interviews. Regular attendance of the weekly school meeting then allows students and new staff to develop a deeper understanding of these principles.
We have tried, where possible, to rely on common sense. It takes the place of most of the rules that other schools refer to. But there are still about a dozen written rules that we all feel make life more straightforward. These range from rules about the wearing of shoes on new carpets to tidying up; washing-up to computer games; watching videos and late arrival at class. There are also set consequences for anyone breaking some of those rules (though if they feel that a decision has been unjust the individual concerned can appeal to School Council to have a punishment cancelled). The School Council’s job is to investigate problems and infringements as they arise and then refer proposals back to the School Meeting for ratification. Tutors are very often advocates for students who have broken rules and they are called before Council or Meeting. The ultimate authority in discipline issues is the School Meeting which has the powers normally invested in a head teacher and governing body. It is there that serious offences are eventually discussed and resolved. However, most infringements are dealt with on an individual basis before they need to reach the School Meeting. The aim of this approach to discipline is to be more than the quick fix of an infringement by encouraging reflection. Resorting to fixed punishments would hamper this positive process. It also allows us to tailor punishments, when necessary, to the character and needs of the child. For example, if a child is consistently late for class because they are in town or socialising, then helping the child understand the value of respecting their own learning, that of their peers who are disturbed by late arrivals and the teacher’s efforts would possibly not be achieved through punishment. A more effective solution would often be found by engaging the child in designing a consequence that reflects their perception of the problem. In our experience, the child who is ‘heard’ and not punished will create a set of limits to their own behaviour that may be very similar to those that others would have imposed anyway. They often actively enforce their own rules more vehemently than those imposed from outside. It also needs to be said that the School Meeting still retains the authority to set a punishment if it feels it would be wise or if they feel the perpetrator is insincere.
However, the School Meeting does have the power to suspend (“exclude”) or expel (“permanently exclude”) in extreme cases, but such decisions would require a lot of debate and such meetings, despite their arduous nature, are some of the most rewarding and re-inspiring events in the school when one witnesses the wisdom and clarity that children can bring to demanding situations. The steps taken before a suspension or exclusion are set out in the school’s Admission, Discipline and Exclusions Policy which is available on the website or from the school office.
- Is Sands like Summerhill?
Lots of parents ask this question, probably because Summerhill is the most well-known or infamous of the progressive schools still in existence in this country. Having heard rumours of its reputation as an overly liberal school, new parents want to know if Sands is run in the same way. Summerhill’s philosophy is based on those of A.S. Neil whereas Sands grew out of the philosophies of Tagore and Dartington Hall School and therefore, while we share some similarities with Summerhill, Sands school is very different. Both value the quality of relationships between adults and children and believe that education is much more than preparation for exams and both schools have received very good Ofsted reports, with inspectors praising both for the maturity and attitude to learning of its respective pupils.
Summerhill is a boarding school and takes children from both primary and secondary ages, and as a result, their social world, how to live together, their rules and punishments have a more dominant focus. Although both schools see the benefits of students making choices about what to study, Sands has an academic tutor system (see elsewhere) that supports and guides those choices that students make. At Sands we stress the value of positive choice and benefits gained from facing challenges.
Summerhill also has a school Head who has veto over all issues. At Sands we have no head teacher, and adults have no veto. Students invariably understand when issues such as health and safety are non‑negotiable, but everything from wages, staff and student appointments, food and trips is open to discussion.
Why is lunch vegetarian?
Running a kitchen that cooks meat requires extremely close adherence to what are already acute health and safety rules. This would require a level of attention to detail that might deny the students the chance to cook lunch when groups wanted to. Because the vegetarians in the school often do care about pans, cookers and cutlery having been in contact with meat, those who are meat-eaters, though inconvenienced a little by a vegetarian menu, generally are happy to accept the compromise, particularly as the vegetarian food is extremely good and varied. Meat-eaters can go into town and buy bacon sandwiches etc and very few object to people bringing meaty food into school. Finally, cooking with good quality organic meat is prohibitively expensive. We already use as much organic, Fair Trade or locally sourced produce as we can afford. Including meat in that equation (combined with need to cook a vegetarian alternative) would put lunch outside many parents’ pockets.
The cost of the lunches is approximately £3.10 per day (check with the office) and will be added to your invoice for school fees, payable in advance. Of course, your child may bring a packed lunch or purchase lunch in the local shops.