Part 2: How shall we structure school?

Posted: July 15, 2013 in Curriculum, Fixing school
Tags: , , , , , ,

Today we will look at how best to structure a school, so I hope you’re sitting comfortably and you’ve got your notebooks ready.

Do we actually need school at all?

After my last Clean Slate post, a lot of people asked me if I planned to home school my children. In short: no. Does that make me a hypocrite? I’d say no, but then I do have a tendency to lie to myself so maybe I am a little bit. The thing is: I think we are doing school wrong, but I don’t think the answer is to scrap school and for everyone to educate their own children in their own home. I want to scrap school and rebuild it from scratch. Not everyone has the time, the patience or the inclination to home school, but everyone does need an education. Also, over the course of human history we have gone from a situation where most people knew how to do most things (sew, cook, make fire, make shoes, ride a horse, build a shed, kill a rabbit etc.) to the situation we have today, where we have specialists for each individual skill, making us dependent on each other for our every day necessities. This means that no one adult can provide their children with access to all the skills they might need or fields of knowledge they might want to explore. We need to team up to educate our children. Thus, I feel there is a need in society for such a thing as school.

NB: I should add that this doesn’t mean every child should attend school. I am all for home education by people who are able and willing to do it.

A guiding principle

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and make a school. Last time we established that children should set the curriculum themselves, led by their interests, survival needs and ambitions, guided by adults. We said we should trust children in this, and that we should let go of our obsession with everyone learning the same thing, at the same time and in the same order.

At the moment, schools are structured in order to achieve what we are trying to avoid: children are grouped according to age; each

Unconventional use of Megablocks, but why not? Child-led learning

Unconventional use of Megablocks, but why not? Child-led learning

year they have to achieve certain targets which have been determined as appropriate for their age; at certain set points in their school career they have to sit nationally standardised exams.

As Ken Robinson says in his excellent TED talk: why are we grouping children by ‘year of manufacture’? What does that have to do with their learning?

An alternative would be to group children according to ability, but I think not. That means frequent and plentiful testing, embarrassed nine year olds in a maths class full of five year olds and a strong emphasis on how outside arbiters are  judging what you are doing. Of course, some people thrive on this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there should be no testing or no competition. I just don’t think it should be the underlying principle for the structure of a school.

The reason I started by writing about motivation was because it is key. I said we are motivated to learn through our interests. Therefore, I propose school should be structured to encourage interests.

Survive, Explore, Specialise

I know the Early Years and Foundation Stage curriculum is very good at encouraging interests. Children learn through play and are given the freedom to follow their interests in a structured-but-free environment. However, my new school will go from early years right through to 18. So I would like to outline a way for this excellent start to be developed through primary and on into secondary education.

At primary level, the main aim will be to encourage children to explore. They should be given the opportunity to find out what is out there in the world that they might want to learn about. There is so much to find out about. It will take all of primary school to discover new things and learn a few basics about them. In fact, exploring should not stop at 11 or indeed ever, and should remain a part of school right up to A-levels (or whatever we choose to replace them with).

The aim of the exploring school years would be to widen the child’s experience and to help them discover what they are interested

Biology happens here

Biology happens here

in. Along the way, they will of course be learning about the topics they become fascinated by. They might come out of this phase with an extremely detailed knowledge of the American Civil War, Pre-Raphaelite painting and the workings of the combustion engine, some basics on the topography of South-East Asia and plate tectonics and a smattering of Japanese. And that would be an entirely acceptable outcome. I can guarantee you that in addition to this, they will also have learned to read, write and do maths. They will have needed to, in order to find out about their favourite topics, and so they will have been motivated to learn.

I would go even further and say that, whatever statistics might tell us, this is the actual outcome of education already. We may have “taught” every child the prescribed topics for science, maths and English, but they will still come out of school remembering only the things that captured their imagination and forgetting the ones they had no love for. So we might as well go with it.

At secondary level, then, exploring will continue. However, it will be joined and gradually over the years overtaken by specialisation. The aim here will be almost the opposite of the first stage, that is, to narrow the child’s field of vision so they can deepen their knowledge and focus on the skills necessary to achieve their goals. Please note that is their goals, not ours or the government’s. As school continues, the child will start to see a pattern emerging in what interests them – something we can help them with if required – and this can lead them to decide what they might want to study further, or what they might like to do for a career. They can then start to focus their school time on acquiring the knowledge and skills they will need in order to be able to fulfil this ambition. Again, the transition from exploring to specialising should be encouraged and guided by teachers but led by the child (who is by now a teenager). If, like me, they change their minds a lot, or are interested in many things, they should be given the option to either keep their options open for longer, or to put in extra hours in order to go deeper into more topics than the school day would normally allow them to.

Alongside this, for the entire duration of school, there are skills to be learned that are necessary for survival. They are different at different ages. A fourteen year old is usually pretty solid on not-touching-hot-things and tying his own shoelaces, but will need to learn about drugs, sex, peer pressure and staying safe online. I don’t really want to use the word, but yes, these are Basic Skills. Life Skills. In the New School, there will not be a set time each week for children to work through a booklet on the survival skill of the week. They will be dealt with as they come up. More ideas on this will follow in a future post, but for now it is enough to highlight that these skills will be the ostinato that accompanies a child’s entire school career, woven in seemlessly to reflect the fact that this is normal living. Not rocket science, but nevertheless important.

Let us pause

There is much more I need to say on this topic. We haven’t even got to organising children into classes or the school space yet, but my word count shows me that I have already gone on for longer than most people are prepared to read for online. So I will sum up my conclusions so far and leave the rest for next month.

Here they are:

1. In society, there is a need for collective education by teachers in a place other than the home. 

2. The guiding principle for structuring school should not be age or ability, but what interests the children.

3. School will start with the emphasis entirely on exploring the world to broaden horizons, then move slowly and increasingly to specialisation, narrowing children’s learning down in order to deepen their knowledge. 

4. Certain skills necessary for survival will be taught throughout, not timetabled, but in a natural way, as they come up.

Please do join in the discussion in the comments! Disagree with me? So much the better, tell me your views and we’ll make school better together.


  1. redpeffer says:

    I think we’d have difficulties grouping into anything other than age for everything. How about having ‘core’ activities in age related groups and exploration related activities in interest groups? I still think there needs to be underlying core skills taught in order to actively demonstrate to children the transferable nature of them and how they relate to their own learning.
    I am loving your ideas though-can we start it really please?!
    I like the idea of flexible schooling. Perhaps where core skills are taught and it’s combined with other forms of learning outside the conventional classroom environment.

    • judithkingston says:

      Maybe by the end of this I will start a new school! If enough people are interested it can be a collaborative effort.
      I do think classes can be formed in other than age-related groups. The thing is, children of the same age are not necessarily at the same stage of learning with different subjects. Also, it is often helpful and inspiring for younger children to interact with older ones and learn from them, and it gives the older ones a boost when they are looked up to and consulted as experts. And you can demonstrate that the core skills are transferable by flagging them up whenever they come up. However, I think maths and English should also be available to be explored as separate subjects because otherwise my boy might cry. Just imagining him entering a classroom full of numbers and the joy on his face makes me happy. 🙂

      I think schools should have classrooms dedicated to topics and areas of interest, and children should be able to choose which one to visit each session. (I am going to go into more detail for my next post in August, I have lots of exciting ideas about how this would work) The children who walk into the room for that time are at that point a class.

      Perhaps that would be too loose, as I do think it is good to have a ‘class’, with a smaller number of students that you can get to know well and become friends with. Hm. Any more ideas?

    • judithkingston says:

      Hm, I think perhaps the rest of your comment got lost… Would you be able to try again? I’d love to hear your views!

  2. MummyTries says:

    Loving this and your previous post Judith. You have basically summed up all my fears of the school system and detailed what I would personally do to turn things around. My biggest gripe is the amount of testing they have to endure from so young these days. Too much pressure and completely unnecessary IMO. Keep up the marvellous work, can’t wait for the next instalment.

    • judithkingston says:

      Thanks for the support! The more I think about the topic and imagine what I would like school to be, the more I think one day I’d like to start my own school…

      Thinking of writing these posts a bit more often (and keeping them shorter) to keep the debate going, so tune in again soon. 🙂

  3. Barbara says:

    Guiding and Scouting for many years have used the patrol system where younger and older children carry out tasks and dicover things together but not sure if all day could be used in thei way feel times with peers are also pretty necessary – lots of food for thought…

  4. […] Welcome to this instalment of Clean Slate, my initiative to scrap school and start all over again. Today we will look at how best to structure a school, so I hope you're sitting comfortably and you…  […]

  5. I love the quote about grouping children by their year of manufacture – that’s an excellent way to sum it up. My son who is 7 brought his school report home last week – he was graded (A-D) on progress and effort in each subject separately. He had 20 – yes 20 – boxes of grades. He’s 7!!! And you know what I found myself doing without realising? Saying to myself “oh, he ‘only’ got a B in progress in foreign languages”!! I felt so cross with myself. Anyway, sorry, that does have a bearing to this, in that I so agree with you about pursuing interests and picking things up along the way. All the standardisation and testing feels just too much too young.
    I do think that children also need a balance in learning things that may not interest them too – I mean who’s in a job that interests them 100% of the time? It’s a skill to be able to show commitment and interest in things that may not be your own interest. Does that make sense?

    • judithkingston says:

      A very good point. You are right. It is an important life skill to be able to persevere with something you may not completely enjoy. However, I do think that too will naturally come up, as there are 3 motivating factors for learning that the new school will be harnessing, and interest – although initially the central focus – is only one of them. The other two are achieving your goals and surviving. In order to achieve your goals, whether they be as complex as becoming an astronaut or as down to earth as earning money, you will inevitably need to apply yourself to learn things you are not naturally interested in, but you will do it because you see the need. That is what I hope will naturally occur as children go beyond their immediate interests and start to form plans and goals. They will discover this other motivating factor and that is when they will fill in the missing skills that they had perhaps neglected earlier because they did not naturally gravitate towards them. What do you think? Do you think that would work?

    • judithkingston says:

      I guess my point is, I don’t think it will be necessary at any point to introduce the fourth motivating factor: fear of authority figures coming down on you like a ton of bricks if you don’t comply.

  6. Wow this is an awesome idea and well done to you on home schooling.I think teachers would welcome your ideas too as the ridiculous testing and grading that goes on in school on children so young is mad – at 6 they should still be playing IMHO. Love this post, very thought provoking.

  7. Great post, but I have to say I’m (whispers) quite happy with school. Maybe it’s because my kids are lucky enough to go to a really good school with really inspirational teachers, but they come home enthusiastic, motivated and full of ideas every day. So that’s good enough for me!

    • judithkingston says:

      That is wonderful! Of course there are plenty of wonderful schools around and plenty of children who are perfectly well-served by the current system of education – I myself loved my school. It is just that having battled on the other side of the educational fence for a while now and seeing all the people who don’t love school, it has got me thinking as to how things could be different to make sure a much larger percentage of children actually learn.

  8. Berl says:

    The flaw in all this is in approaching the edication “problem” in a top down manner. Top down means that you think about a problem, discuss it for awhile with smart people, come up with a solution and then try to apply it. That approach ONLY works on a very small scale, with a very limited scope. Like “how do I make a super absorbent diaper”. Or “how do I improve the fuel economy of the Ford Fusion”. The education “problem”is not solvable. There are WAY too many variables: economic level, climate conditions, religious orientation, ethnicity, student age. I mean, let’s face it. If you think you’ve solved the problem on Sept 1st, the society morphs and you have to rethink the problem all over again by the time Februrary rolls around. No, a top down approach cannot work.

    I can elaborate on how a bottom up approach can work, and work spectacularly, if interested. It is surprisingly based on the principle of failure.

    • judithkingston says:

      Please do elaborate. I agree that education is so complex that a one size fits all solution can probably not be found, but I don’t think that should stop us from trying to make things better, or from chucking everything out and starting all over again. My aim has been to start with a clean slate and not be afraid to do away with anything we currently take for granted as a necessity – so if you have a more radical and more effective approach then I would love to hear more.

  9. Pinkoddy says:

    I do agree that children should not be grouped together by the year they were born; nor do I think children born in September should have to wait if ready, or August babies should be able to defer – definitely a different system on age structuring.

    Now for the exploring – is this totally free-range? as in the work of Piaget?
    Or are the teachers going to help facilitate this learning? as in Vygotsky?
    I do agree that children learn best when it is something they are interested in – but if it is pure exploring I fear that some people would never learn to read and write – or do maths.

    • judithkingston says:

      It would be facilitated by teachers. I believe that children need lots of freedom to explore, but they do need guidance from adults who know what is out there to discover and what they might be interested in next. A child might be interested in birds, but wouldn’t know without guidance that there are books that can tell you about the names of the birds and where they might live, for instance. I will go into more detail about this in my next post.

      Also, I do really believe that eventually every child will discover the need to read and write without it being pushed on them as a compulsory subject. I sometimes think we get too panicky about it, and in the same way my 2 year old will pick up on what I desperately want him to do and deliberately do the opposite, I think children of all ages start to develop a reluctance about topics that are pressed on them with such urgency.

      I was just looking at your blog, and you must have a wide experience with school entry age and how it affects children, if all four of yours were born in different seasons. Each child is so individual, I think you’re right and August children should be able to defer and September children start if they’re ready.

  10. Really interesting post. I really like 3. ‘School will start with the emphasis entirely on exploring the world to broaden horizons, then move slowly and increasingly to specialisation, narrowing children’s learning down in order to deepen their knowledge’.
    (I’ve shared this on @kallikids, woul love to hear from you if you’d be interested in guest posting about your views on education)

  11. A really interesting post and one that raises a lot of questions and discussion points. I had never really thought about how to group children together – just took it for granted really! I certainly think children should learn more about social aspects – there’s not enough discussion about that. And I’d make manners compulsory! Thanks for linking to PoCoLo xx

    • judithkingston says:

      There are a lot of things that could come up at school that don’t yet at the moment. Perhaps school should imitate life more. Or life should flow seemlessly into school. Hm, having some new thoughts now…

  12. Interesting read! My son is only 10 months so I’ve never had any experience of our current education. You’ve really opened my eyes about a lot of things. Popping over from #PoCoLo

    Mum of a Premature Baby ||

    • judithkingston says:

      Same age as my daughter! Always good to think ahead, maybe by the time our babies start school I’ll have started a new one – I’ll keep you posted. 🙂

  13. […] In How to structure a school, I suggest that it is ‘interests’ that should also be the guiding principle for school structure. The first phase of education should focus on widening children’s horizons and helping them explore and learn about as wide a variety of topics as possible, in order to establish what they are interested in. The second phase should maintain this, but increasingly shift towards narrowing focus and specialising, guided by the child’s ambitions for the future. […]

  14. […] Part 2, I suggested school should be structured to allow pupils to explore and pursue their […]

  15. […] Part 2: How shall we structure school? […]

  16. […] Part 2: How shall we structure school? […]

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