Lucy Stephens is Founder and Director of The New School, an experimental fee-free independent school in Croydon, South London.
I knew I wanted to make a change 15 years ago when I left full-time teaching believing that I didn’t have the tools, the knowledge, or the time to support the young people in my classes who were already failing in our education system. But through working with young people at The Prince’s Trust, a couple of degrees, two children, and every spare waking moment with my head in the research, I’ve realised that we cannot change the education system from within.
When we believe that everything in education can be measured, and that achieving equal outcomes and results are a sign that our system is fair, we expose the system to hacking. When we expose the system to hacking, we create educational triage. Setting and streaming become common-sense, teaching to the test becomes normal, focusing the best teachers on the ‘most able’ or those near a grade boundary becomes logical, squeezing the creative subjects out of the curriculum becomes necessary, and doubling down on zero tolerance behaviour policies as a result of disengaged, marginalised, alienated young people seems a no brainer.
But the reality? A perfect storm of mental health issues, bullying, disengagement, school to prison pipelines, and young people believing they are a failure - an accentuation of social injustice. Or a group of young people who can pass a test but have no idea what they’re interested in, what they want to do with their lives, or who they are as a person.
I’ve created The New School, because I believe we can do things differently. I think that education can be inclusive of all young people. It can have a big impact on societal problems. We can support all young people to know themselves, to understand others, and to believe they have something to offer the world. But it has to start with every young person having a voice and a sense of purpose.
The New School launched in September 2020. Heavily oversubscribed, a non-fee-paying democratic school in South London, with small mixed age classes, we are on a mission to positively change education by putting young people’s voice at the heart of their own education.
Why youth voice? Young people both historically and still today, have things ‘done to’ them – whether it’s education, medical procedures, behaviour techniques etc and this typically results in disinterest or resistance which fuels societal problems such as school exclusions, the school to prison pipeline, the mental health crisis and less empathetic society. To overcome these huge societal challenges, I believe that we need to radically shake things up, both in our schools and in our homes. Only through partnership-based relationships can we enable the next generation to find a sense of purpose, identity, and a collective belonging that brings out the best in everyone.
But how? To thrive, we must all feel a sense of control, or agency, in our own lives. A sense of agency breeds empowerment, which in turn leads to self-esteem and self-efficacy. When young people are able to explore their own interests and get to know themselves more deeply, they develop a sense of purpose. This combination of agency and purpose leads to an improved attitude towards learning, but also greater life satisfaction.
However, as we have found over the last year, facilitating young people’s voice is hard work! It certainly goes a lot deeper than having a school council or other tokenistic initiatives. It is about the tone of voice that we use, the respect with which we engage with young people (whilst also holding the role of adult) and the decision-making systems that give young people the space and support to be heard. Those in positions of power have a responsibility to listen effectively to young people to model what an equitable society looks like.
For The New School, this starts with building quality relationships by getting to know individuals, respecting differences and including everyone. We organise our day and our management structures differently from traditional schools. For example, whilst young people must learn essential skills such as numeracy, literacy and digital literacy, they have greater control over their personal learning plans, including what and how they learn best. We have a community accountability policy, instead of a punitive zero-tolerance behaviour management policy. Every school morning for young people starts with a class circle time where young people can reflect on what has gone before, as well as the day ahead, and share how they are feeling.
Democratic education is not new. There are many studies that demonstrate the efficacy of this approach across the globe. However, it is often only available on a fee-paying basis. The New School exists because we believe that income should not be a barrier to education, which is why we are borrowing the flexibility of the private school model but do not charge fees and are comprehensive in intake. This is made possible because of generous private philanthropic donations but our long-term strategy has always been about working with the mainstream sector to find a sustainable funding solution.
We are also committed to proving our impact, which is why we have developed a unique outcomes model, far more comprehensive than the usual measures. And, we are working with the University of Nottingham to independently evaluate our impact.
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