Out of Africa

It’s all about the core subjects, exam results and league tables. The direction of travel in the UK education system is clear for all to see. There are many who fundamentally disagree with this approach, including me. What is the benefit of the KS2 SATs test to the children who actually sit them? The marginalisation of arts and non-core based subjects smacks of of early 80s Thatcherism and will surely lead this country down a cultural cul-de-sac to the detriment of everyone. I wonder also if, in 10 or 20 years time our Olympians will be as successful as they are now?

Sometimes you need to see something completely left field to crystalize your thoughts on an issue. For me, this came in the form of a video which one of my oldest friends shared on Facebook at the weekend. Dave and I grew up together in Thornbury, near Bristol. This was in an a pre electronic entertainment era – if any of the three or four (from 1982) TV channels weren’t to your liking then you had to make your own entertainment. That typically involved bikes, go karts, breeze blocks and any old pieces of wood we could find, and in the summer endless games of cricket. From those heady days our lives took different paths, after University, after a couple of turns Dave now lives and works in Cape Town and I ended up teaching in Rochdale.

The video Dave shared was about an outdoor learning project at his children’s school, the Imhoff Waldorf, which is situated on the Cape Peninsula, right on the South Western tip of Africa. It’s hard to imagine a geographically more stunning setting, situated between the stunning Atlantic coast to the West and False Bay to the west and nestling in the foothills of the Cape Point Vineyards. However, it’s location is not the only thing which is special about the Imhoff Waldorf School. Take a look at this video and decide for yourself.

Whilst very few schools will have the luxury of such magnificent topography, there are surely lessons we can learn from the ‘Waldorf’ approach. What screams out from that video is the focus on the child, rather than the result. Right from the early years in KS1 children in our system are defined by their achievement alone. Schools are ranked by SATs, GCSEs ans A levels, children are merely numbers which are fed in to oil the wheels of the machine.

There are examples of schools in the UK which are seeking to connect more closely with their local communities and environments. A great example is a small rural primary school in Weardale, a small village in the North Pennines. They have put farming at the heart of their curriculum. This makes great sense for a small rural school, but perhaps others could learn from it too. Outdoor learning should be encouraged across the curriculum. Excellent projects such as incredible edible offer the opportunity to combine schools and community whist teaching messages about sustainability. It’s also really easy to bring children closer to nature. I’ve recently introduced children from the school I work in to the webcam showing a nest of peregrine falcons in Rochdale. I get asked more questions about how they are getting on than I do about anything else – why? Because it’s happening on their doorstep and they can relate to it.

The lessons we can learn from schools such as Imhoff Waldorf should not be ignored. They are using their environment to create a holistic education centred around the needs of the children. They also strive for academic success, but realise that this should not and does not determine what a successful education looks like. Given a shift in priorities, there’s no reason why our school system could not strive for the same goal. In the short term that’s very unlikely to happen, however, it’s up to us all as educators to look for any way we can to help broaden children’s outlook and experiences so they are better equipped to connect with their own communities and environments.

As my mate Dave pointed out “at least we had the chance of a life of creative play outside of school.” Many children no longer have that luxury at home, so it’s up to us to make sure they do at school.

Out of Africa