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Reaching New Heights

In the publication, Absolutely Education, Rick discusses the progressive educational thinking which underpins our school. Read the published version here.


The new Head of Frensham Heights, Rick Clarke, discusses why the progressive educational thinking which underpins his school has more relevance today than ever before.

When Frensham Heights was founded in 1925, it was at the forefront of the progressive education movement – a fresh pedagogical approach with each child’s individuality at its heart. An enlightened alternative to the stifling, restrictive educational system of the Victorian era. Our founders created a school that allowed individuals to flourish in a democratic, open and respectful culture. Instead of teachers having a strict authoritarian role, they encouraged students to have a voice, to develop autonomy and curiosity and to discover a sense of their own place in the world. I am proud to say that we have remained true to those pioneering beliefs and continue to offer a real alternative to a traditional public school education. As I approach the end of my first year here, I am struck by how the lessons of progressivism seem more relevant today than ever before.

Yet progressive education continues to have a bad press, taking the blame for falling standards and classroom disruption. Only recently, the Government’s school behaviour tsar, Tom Bennett, accused progressive teaching of failing children. Before making any sweeping judgements, it is important to look at what progressive education actually is, where it came from and how it can improve educational outcomes in the future. The roots of progressive education date back to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ‘Emile’ of 1762, which argues that a true education helps the child – seen as innately good – become happy, inquisitive and spontaneous through experiential learning. This idea influenced a number of European and American educationalists. John Dewey, regarded as the founder of the progressive movement in America, said schools were not simply places to gain knowledge, but places to learn how to live.

In our increasingly stressful world, children worry about everything from the fate of the planet to the status of their Instagram feed. They also face a relentless focus on exams. This may raise standards, but the subsequent impact on the wellbeing of both teachers and children cannot be underestimated. As an independent school, we have been able to stay true to our progressive foundations. Turning the focus away from just exams, we can provide an education which lets children be children, allowing them to discover at their own pace the innate skills which will better equip them as adults. But contrary to what many believe, progressive education is not without boundaries, structure or core values. At Frensham underlining all of this is respect; respect that is earned, not demanded. It is at the core of how our children and adults conduct themselves.

We also give children more freedom here than at other schools, but that does not mean students can do whatever they want. With freedom comes responsibility and we have high expectations of everyone in our community. But the value of freedom, of taking risks, making mistakes and learning from them is ever more important as ‘helicopter’ and ‘snowplough’ parents attempt to make their children’s lives risk-free in pursuit of academic goals.

All of this asks the question: ‘What is education for?’ If it is simply to produce university graduates or workers of the future, then we fall into the trap of seeing education simply as a means to an end. However, if we view education, as I do, as an experience that allows young people to become the best version of themselves, then we need an approach that looks more like Frensham’s – one that equips students with a lifelong love of learning and a set of values and skills to serve them well whatever they do. Putting traditional against progressive is not helpful; the most successful schools and teachers thrive in the spaces in between, using the best methods for the children in front of them.

At Frensham, we continue to be the nurturing, vibrant, creative community that our early pioneers envisaged. We have no doubt that there is another way to educate. Generations of successful, happy Frenshamians, with alumni from other progressive schools, are testimony to that.

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