7 Unusual Teaching Practices of English Schools

Image shows Wellington College.The UK is home to some of the world’s most famous schools, but it’s not just the Eton Colleges of this country that deserve attention.

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A number of UK schools have gained praise not for their long and illustrious histories, but for the cutting-edge teaching practices they’re implementing and the dramatic results they’re achieving through doing so. As the schools we look at in this article demonstrate, following convention isn’t always the best way to achieve strong academic results. Some of the more unusual practices to be found in English schools are worthy of a closer look, and some may even be a sign of things to come. Here are some of the most interesting teaching methods, styles and approaches to be found within the nation’s most forward-thinking schools.

1. Summerhill School: Where children don’t have to go to lessons if they don’t want to

Image shows Summerhill School.
Summerhill’s structure has spawned countless imitations worldwide.

Founded in 1921, yet described as “still ahead of its time”, A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School is a school with a difference. This international, co-educational boarding school is an alternative or ‘free’ school that describes itself as “the oldest children’s democracy in the world”. It’s a place where adults and children are considered equals, and in which children are free to follow their own interests; the distinction between inside and outside the classroom is far less distinct than in most schools, as the school believes that “much important learning takes place outside the classroom”. This is an idea the school takes to what some might see as an extreme: children are free to attend formal lessons if they want to, but they’re not obliged to. It’s up to children to decide how they spend their time, allowing them to grow at their own pace and select activities they feel personally motivated to take part in – even if that means playing the whole time (the school sees this as beneficial, both mentally and physically). They’re responsible for their own learning, to the point that they can even go to a structured class purely to obtain the materials they need to pursue their own projects. This means that children grow up managing their own lives, being incredibly self-motivated – valuable preparation for life beyond the education system.

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Pupils and teachers have an equal vote in the school’s twice-weekly meetings, which are part of its unique system of self-government and which provide the setting for the creation of all school rules; this makes children feel that their opinions are valued. The school enjoys an informal atmosphere, including the use of first names, which certainly goes against the grain of many UK boarding schools. The aim of this unusual way of doing things isn’t just to provide the best possible educational environment for its pupils, but to develop self-confidence in its pupils. The school instils a sense of community and personal responsibilities in its pupils, but also aims to provide a happy and carefree environment in which pupils can grow up away from the anxieties of the outside world. As the school’s founder, A.S. Neill, said, “All crimes, all hatreds, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness.” He certainly came up with an unusual way of creating happy people.

2. Leasowes Community College: Lessons that can last days

Image shows a close-up of a tie knot.
Leasowes requires its students to wear smart clothing for business lessons.

A lesson lasting five or six days sounds like a recipe for boredom, but Leasowes Community College in Dudley argues that complete immersion in a subject enables a deeper understanding and better academic results. While the school’s timetable looks fairly conventional four days of the week, its ‘Flexible Friday’, which starts at 9.30am and finishes at 1.30pm, is dedicated to allowing students to focus on a single subject. What’s more, blocks of lessons over days can be set aside to the pursuit of one subject, meaning that children aren’t having to switch rapidly between one subject and another, but can instead concentrate on learning one subject at a time in depth, absorbing more in the process. Devoting days at a time to a subject in this way allows pupils to learn the theory and practice in one go, and for subjects requiring experiments, it means that the time spent setting up and clearing away isn’t eating into a big chunk of learning time. This isn’t the only unusual feature of this college’s teaching practices; for instance, when taking days of lessons in Business Studies, pupils are required to wear business dress, and they’re taken to local businesses. Through its unusual teaching methods, the school’s percentage of pupils achieving grades A-C has jumped from 40% to 91%, which just goes to show what can be achieved by doing things differently.

3. Wellington College: Launched its own educational research centre

Image shows Harvard University.
Wellington teamed up with Harvard to launch their education research centre.

Prestigious boarding school Wellington College takes its teaching so seriously that it launched its own educational research centre to eliminate the guesswork from teaching methods – thought to be the first of its kind in the UK. Teaming up with three state schools and Harvard Graduate School of Education, Wellington College’s Learning and Research Centre is implementing a variety of new teaching styles and testing pupils to see which teaching methods produce the best results. This means that, rather than guessing as to which methods are most effective, the schools will have empirical evidence to inform the way they teach. Variations will include the level of pupil involvement in the learning process, different kinds of teaching activities and different classroom settings. Specifically, the school says that its two-year study will focus on three areas of pupils’ attitudes and responses to learning, defining these, somewhat esoterically, as metacognition (“knowing about knowing”), growth mindset (children understanding that they are continually learning) and ‘grit’ (resilience in the classroom). Hopefully the meaning of these will become clearer once the school publishes its findings, which will be made available for all schools to learn from.

4. Windermere School: The importance of an outdoor education

Image shows Lake Windermere.
Windermere School takes full advantage of its Lake District location.

In its Mission Statement, Windermere School in the heart of the Lake District National Park lists one of its aims as being to “Use our unique location at the heart of mountains, lakes and rivers as our greater classroom for adventure and adventurous learning, where our students will learn directly about the environment, each other and themselves”. The school is not unusual in its emphasis on education beyond the classroom – this has been an important part of a boarding school education since Victorian era reforms – but its spectacular surroundings are uniquely well-suited to this aim. The school has its own outdoor and watersports centre, known as Hodge Howe, right on the shores of Lake Windermere, which plays a key part in its programme of extra-curricular activities. Accredited for teaching canoeing and yachting, it has a large fleet of small sailing boats that includes the dinghy owned by author Arthur Ransome (famous for his Swallows and Amazons series, inspired by Ransome’s own experiences of sailing on Lake Windermere), and holds sailing courses as well as regular lessons. It’s a classic example of a boarding school that recognises the value of teaching children about the environment and appreciating the outdoors, and its stunning setting provides the perfect extension to the classroom.

5. Monkseaton High School: Spaced learning

Image shows a projector's beam in the darkness.
The high-speed repetition of facts makes them easier to remember.

Monkseaton High School in Tyne and Wear became the first to pioneer a new kind of learning known as “spaced learning”, in which pupils learn condensed academic content repeated three times, interspersed by two ten-minute breaks during which they carry out other activities, such as physical exercise, which purposefully distract pupils from the subject of the lesson. During the learning bursts, which are around eight minutes each, pupils are not distracted by the usual features of the classroom environment, and they don’t use books, pens or papers; they simply concentrate hard on PowerPoint presentations that cycle through facts at great speed. This process is more successful at allowing pupils to commit information to long-term memory, and it’s based on cutting-edge neuroscientific research, which suggests that the brain cells perform best when given regular breaks. And it’s having excellent results, with increased motivation, and some pupils experiencing an increase in academic performance to the tune of two grades higher. What’s more, the method can replace the usual months of revision in the run-up to exams. We wouldn’t be surprised if more schools start implementing this innovative teaching method in the years to come.

6. The Thomas Deacon Academy: A more adult learning environment

Nestled in a building designed by the architectural firm of Lord Foster, the Thomas Deacon Academy eschews the normal things you’d expect in a school in favour of a more adult environment that makes it feel more like going to work than going to school. There are no bells, no set break times, and no playground, and Sixth Form pupils wear business suits. Pupils get breaks when teachers sense that they need one. School bells, the head says, foster a “herd mentality” that goes against its belief in cultivating personal responsibility. This attitude can also be seen in the fact that pupils don’t have to ask permission from a teacher if they want to go to the toilet, or get something to drink; it’s a very different culture from most schools, and one that creates pupils who are better prepared for the real world.

7. Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form: A science school housed in a fire station

Image shows a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton.
The sixth form is named after Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered gravity, contributed to the invention of calculus, made a huge contribution to the field of optics and helped save the English currency from collapse.

We’ve already noted that the environment in which a school is located is an important part of a child’s education and experience of school, so we’re not sure what that says about the final school we’ll look at today. The Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form, which opened last year, is an unusual school in that it’s housed in a former fire station, a listed building that conservation laws demanded must retain its original character. It seems somehow a fitting environment for the UK’s first dedicated Maths and Science Sixth Form school – one determined to foster a culture in which those wishing to become scientists are not derided as “geeks”. The fire station building is only part of its drive to show that science is cool. Motivational speakers are brought in to inspire pupils to pursue science and maths as a career, and the school has links with a local research park and various other scientific education providers. This has the advantage of keeping pupils and teachers abreast of relevant scientific developments, giving children’s studies a context that encourages a deeper understanding of what they’re learning.
The school is committed to making science and maths more interesting than some pupils perceive them to be, and describes its “Elements of Success” as including “innovative practice in teaching, learning and assessment”, “immersion for our young people within the worlds of maths, science, computing and engineering” and the “definition and application of an evidence-based STEM pedagogy”. That last one, referring to the ‘STEM’ subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, harks back to Wellington College and its evidence-based approach to teaching – further evidence of a new wave of educational thinking centred around an empirical basis to teaching methods. This certainly seems appropriate for a school that focuses so heavily on the sciences, and with a national shortage of graduates with science degrees, it wouldn’t be surprising if more such schools open their doors to address this shortfall.

Image shows two typical English schoolgirls in Dorking.
British schools are becoming more innovative.

So, whether they’re implementing cutting-edge teaching methods or simply preparing pupils for real life through an outdoor education or a more business-like school environment, English schools are becoming increasingly confident about stepping out of the mould of convention. With a greater emphasis on proving the effectiveness of certain teaching methods, and on demanding that pupils take responsibility for themselves, English schools are taking great strides towards modernising education and providing schooling fit for the 21st century. Such innovation is important if we are to recognise that the vastly different world we live in today necessitates a different approach to teaching to the ones we’ve grown up with; times have changed, and our schools are finally starting to change with them.

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Image credits: banner; Summerhill; tie; Harvard; Windermere; projector; Newton; schoolgirls.