A new school that has faith in pupils and teachers

On Monday, I was lucky enough to witness the opening of a very special school. One of 93 free schools opening this year, the East London Science School (ELSS) started as it means to go on – raising the bar and encouraging all to look to the stars.

On day one, the whole school, including the caretaker, visited Imperial College to listen to artist Paul Fryer and Professor Robert Winston talk about their work. Both spoke to pupils in a way rarely seen in many schools today – without condescension, and with a simplicity that comes only through really knowing and loving what they do. Paul Fryer described his work, which includes a bell jar with a star in it and beautiful glass sculptures inspired by photographs of drops of water. Robert Winston gave a magical mini lecture on genetics and his team’s medical work. Between them, they showed pupils how amazing our world is. Even better, they showed how we can get to know our world through science and create beautiful art objects: by allowing ourselves time to marvel at the world and by making the effort to understand it. It was a fitting start for a school that has knowledge as its guiding principle.

Knowledge as a guiding principle means far more than promising to provide efficient skills, offer learning centred on each pupil’s needs or deliver a bucket full of A* examination results.  It means, for example, that each member of staff can justify their subject in its own terms (check out the website); it means that as a team, the staff’s first priority is to impart their knowledge to every one of their pupils. To this end, school principal David Perks and his team have devised a timetable that enables staff to make high intellectual demands while allowing plenty of time and scope for pupils to make knowledge their own - whether through practical lessons, specially selected visits or their prep work (homework), which they do at school with teachers on hand for guidance. Then they can go home, free to be simply children rather than schoolchildren.

All this may sound pretty innocuous and uncontroversial, but it represents a profound break with most contemporary education because the starting point is getting pupils to understand that disciplinary knowledge is important and worth taking seriously, even if the children don’t like it.

The educational orthodoxy that shapes the aims, curriculum and activities of most schools is the opposite. It begins with trying to ascertain the existing needs (in other words, limits) of each pupil and how knowledge can be changed, reduced or replaced to match those needs. The centrality of teachers as sources of educational authority at ELSS is evinced by the independence afforded to them on matters regarding their subject and teaching. They are treated, and see themselves, as educators rather than facilitators or deliverers of received opinions or implementers of the latest evidence-based research, most of which assumes that all that is valuable must be measurable.

When I asked a pupil on Monday what he thought about Paul Fryer’s art, he paused for a moment and replied, ‘It’s like the art of science.’ From a young boy whose love is computers and Nintendo games, such words tell me he is in exactly the right school to be educated, even if that cannot be statistically proven.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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