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Planning her own dramatically different school, Charlotte Church addresses some challenging questions

One of the most iconic presenters to SSAT’s National Conference last year, Charlotte Church is not just a popular singer, but also an actor, a presenter, and a political activist exploring issues around education, creativity, the curriculum, and the restraints of the school system

She had been spending the last few months before the SSAT National Conference researching education and creativity in greater depth, with the ultimate aim of setting up her own school.

“The journey I’m on has made me question my assumptions of what a good school can be, of what good teaching is. It continues to be the steepest learning curves of my entire life.” She aims to set up a school “not in competition with the state system – in collaboration, but free from the demands of the state. Not some middle-class, cutesy private school, but a school that does not ask for fees, yet provides an education that is fit for the future.”

The proposed school will also be “a centre for education research that can offer its findings back to the state system…. The spark that ignited this process for me was the enormous response I had after announcing my intentions on Woman’s Hour this summer [2018]. From teachers, parents, architects, town planners, consultants, researchers, psychologists, maybe even some of you in this room. I can’t tell you how elated I felt.

“When we think of creativity in education, should we just be looking at the creativity of the students and teachers? If it’s as important as everyone says it is, rather than trying to force creativity into classrooms, why not question with the kids what the classroom should be, or whether a classroom is necessary at all? Each school community will have different needs and therefore different answers, which makes the asking such an exciting creative endeavour.

“When we spoon-feed education, learning isn’t earned. When learning is attached to an emotion, be it the joy and satisfaction of achievement or the fluttering excitement of discovery or the rich thrill of creation, the lessons stick. And the lesson will never be exactly the one that the teacher set out to teach. We must surrender that control too.

“Neurotically examining young people and making examinations the primary focus of their education is nothing but a distraction for students and fundamentally fails to assess anything of value. Keeping developing minds from their passions and tasking them with exercises that have little to no relevance to their lives is taking away their natural propensity to learn.

Keeping developing minds from their passions and tasking them with exercises that have little to no relevance to their lives is taking away their natural propensity to learn

Students helping to design the curriculum

“[It’s] a catastrophic waste of resources that we aren’t asking them what they want from their education. Can they not help us in designing a curriculum, in remodelling their learning environment? Think of the sense of ownership they’d feel. I understand that this idea of co-construction is something that many of your schools are currently looking into.

“I recently visited St Catherine’s primary school in Sheffield. It’s a school with difficult challenges, with 40 different languages spoken, in an inner-city area of high deprivation, yet the innovation and creativity that shone from every room and corridor was truly inspiring. Every classroom I walked into was decorated in line with the subjects being studied. The year 6 class was studying the Titanic, so they had drapes and fabric with handcrafted chandeliers – even a massive model of the ship’s bow coming out of the wall.”

Another school had inspired her because “safety from bullying is, if not 100% assured, made significantly more possible by the children themselves. In Sands in Ashburton, Devon, all operations are decided by the school council (more a school parliament) – from the budget and the hiring and firing of staff to the writing of school rules, including the appropriate justice for students who break those rules.

“Every pupil and staff member has an equal vote on all matters. A student caught bullying at Sands would have to face a jury of their peers, who then decide upon a fitting and fair punishment. (The process of having judgement put upon you by your friends seems enough of a roasting, even before the penalty!) It certainly works as a deterrent far more than detention. The kids are shown trust and allowed risk and they fail and fail again, fail better each time, all the while participating in a living democratic system that is a hell of a lot fairer than most.”

The effect of such an education, Charlotte Church suggested, would be that “the next generation of parents are more active in their children’s education. Vic Godard, the head of Passmores Academy, one of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met, says the reason he has stuck with that school, even though sometimes it’s really hard due to the abject poverty of the area, is so he can see his students return as parents with a greater sense of responsibility for their children than theirs did, despite their economic prospects. He’s in it for the long game.

“So finally, I’d like to ask you to maybe help me with my research, as a project with your pupils. If you have the time or inclination, I would ask you to ask them what they want from a school, what they think is important to learn and what they think education is for. These questions, asked creatively, could return answers that tell us something we didn’t previously know.”

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