Arranging Classroom Furniture: An Unobtrusive Glimpse into How Teachers Teach — Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

How teachers arrange the furniture in classrooms gives a peek into how teachers teach. Look at these photos taken last year of elementary and secondary classrooms that have different furniture arrangements. Note the different arrangements of  desks. In the first photo, rows of movable desks face the front of the classroom where the teacher’s desk […]

Arranging Classroom Furniture: An Unobtrusive Glimpse into How Teachers Teach — Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Nature School

We want Nature to be at the heart of our school. We understand this in two ways. On the one hand we want to study Nature and natural processes and this has implications for the content of our curriculum- what we teach . On the other hand we want to study in a natural way: this has implications for teaching and learning styles, the organization of spaces and timetables, and scale. We have clear ideas about human development and growth, the best habitats for humans, and the kind of social structures that liberate creativity and invention.

Photo by Maria Orlova on


In my post on Forest Schools, I started to consider the ideas that underlie the history of Nature education. In Europe those roots go back to Froebel and Pestalozzi, and tend to be associated with little kids. The Scandinavian model is the most common at the moment and, although there is some content, it is predominantly a child-centered, natural way of learning. The implication is that there are major cognitive gains to be had from working in line with little kids’ natural curiosity, creativity and sense of adventure, and there is some evidence to support this.

This is great, but since we have a 4 to 18 school, we want Nature to thread through from bottom to top. We cannot be limited to a kindergarten model. In my previous post I identified the “veteran kids” age of 9-13 as a key phase. We want there to be a consistent approach and curriculum that develops over time, taking advantage of the energies of those “veteran kids” and linking forward into the structured, formal learning they will do as older teenagers. How do you get from poking a bonfire with a stick to Environmental Science? Where is the model for older students?

The Forest School of Cuthbert Rutter, with its roots in the youth work of Westlake and Seton, provides one possible model. It is linked to ideas about freedom and self-government and is not limited to little kids. Seton’s first experiments arose from his desire to give good experiences to disaffected adolescents. Adults taught youngsters woodcraft and survival skills They were faced with outdoor challenges and worked their way up through a structured series of levels towards mastery. Many of these challenges were pre-industrial and would not be out of place in the wilderness: swimming across a lake, starting a fire, climbing a tree.

Neither the Scandinavian Forest School nor Rutter’s Forest School make a good fit with UAE. Abu Dhabi is a modern city where the sea and the desert create the history, culture and geography of the region. A natural way of learning in a woodland setting, undertaking pre-industrial survival-style activities, does not have much relevance to modern urban living. Consider this photograph of Abu Dhabi.

Photo by Iva Prime on

In this built environment we have to find a different way of being natural. Dreaming of English woodland or the American prairies does not make sense. Woodland survival skills are not relevant.

Desert and Sea

Nature in Abu Dhabi is harsh. Summer temperatures can reach 50ºC and there is very little rain, which tends to fall in torrential bursts in the summer months. The coastal regions are extensive salt pans, which are not appropriate for woodlands of any kind, although they can be rich in bird life. The Mangrove National Park just outside Abu Dhabi is rich in bio-diversity, but mangrove swamps are not woodland of the type that Westlake and Rutter were familiar with.

It is conceivable to imagine a context-specific scaling up of Rutter’s Forest School, substituting Desertcraft Arabs for Woodcraft Indians. I do not want to take this route. The harshness of the environment would make desert survival skills considerably less pleasant than in a verdant woodland.

Photo by Flo Maderebner on

A school of 475 in an urban setting cannot compel children to sign up for a series of pre-industrial challenges in the desert: they won’t see the sense of it. Furthermore, freedom is a core value and we cannot impose on all the children a set of merit badges for learning skills that have little or no relevance to their daily lives. We are committed to working with the interest of children as a fundamental part of our Mission. We have to find a better way of learning that acknowledges the modern scale and dimensions of the city we live in whilst maintaining the emphasis on Nature.

Urban children do not have daily direct experience of the natural world. This is one of the reasons we want to include Nature in our school. It isn’t just a matter of filling the school with resources and curriculum content that explains to them the science of the natural world. We want to encourage them to be observant, curious, interested and analytical. These are the attitudes that underlie the skills that will make the knowledge they acquire in the formal curriculum relevant and lasting.

Natural Way

Perhaps it is possible to find a “natural way” that can form the underpinning of our work. If we can identify these principles, then we can apply them to the unique environment we find ourselves in and not be distracted by the specific details of the models we are looking at.

Both the European and the Anglo-Saxon models have an underlying sense of what is a natural way to learn. It clearly isn’t a classroom model. They both stress that direct contact with Nature is superior to learning from textbooks. Children learn to be more attentive, observant, competent and creative when they are outside in a natural environment. The ability to do things for themselves, such as making tools or climbing trees, gives a sense of mastery that has a direct impact on self-esteem and confidence.

Photo by Anna Shvets on

We can certainly take this attitude of direct contact with Nature by:

  • cultivating food within the school
  • spending time on the beach
  • observing, measuring and recording
  • using art and writing to respond to Nature
  • having quiet areas in Natural settings to encourage mindfulness
  • excursions to seaside and desert parks
  • links with environmental organizations
  • recycling, composting and permaculture
  • safeguarding free choice of action outside the core curriculum
  • encouraging parental engagement

Designing the Curriculum

A conventional classroom environment with its tests and assessments obliges children to focus on their personal performance. Learning about Nature could form a part of the taught curriculum adding an additional burden of content. Children would then be assessed on a further raft of knowledge that might include natural processes, the principles of permaculture, ecological awareness, geography and science. We might see this as essential preparation for formal learning in environmental and sustainability courses at an older age.

We don’t want to take this route. We do not want to eliminate knowledge taught in the classroom: it is essential for children’s futures that they get the qualifications that will allow them to go on to the next stage in their lives after school. However, we are committed to learning about Nature in a “natural way”. Working on individually focused activities in a classroom where students are assessed with regard to objective learning targets is essentially artificial. This artificiality is valuable. It gives both teachers and students precise information about what they have and have not learnt. It enables them to achieve results that would not be possible by always following a “natural way” based on curiosity, observation and interest.

Photo by Allan Mas on

However, we recognize that focusing on what you get in examinations leads to selfish individualism. We want children to have the experience of living and working in a community, learning without the pressure of the examination, and sharing their work and results freely. We do not want them to focus on the results they individually get and we do not want any child to have the sensation that they are “not good at Nature.” The underlying principles of learning in Nature must be open to all children regardless of how well they do in the classroom. Furthermore, the precedents above clearly show that cooperative work can be a vibrant part of the non-taught curriculum. Humans have worked cooperatively for millennia- it is a part of our biology and is clearly a “natural way” of learning. The attitudes and approaches we take from the Forest School and Nature School traditions lead us to maintain that this aspect of the curriculum must include significant periods of time where children can respond freely to the natural environment, design their own projects and activities and respond to real-life scenarios.

Creating a Nature School is building a habitat where children can live and work together. They have formal learning in classrooms. Their reactions to the natural world, however, are not always filtered through academic targets. There are spaces where they can create things for themselves, times when they can talk freely, opportunities to do things together, and communities where joint activity is not measured or assessed but forms an essential part of life in the school.

The model we use for the community dimension of MBAT is at a different scale and level than either the Scandinavian model or Cuthbert Rutter’s Forest School. All of the cognitive gains in the Forestry Commission’s research on Forest Schools are comprehensively covered by the community organization of the school, the parental engagement program, and the provision of increasingly sophisticated activity rooms as the children get older. This means that we can move on from the way of working to thinking more coherently about curriculum content.

Curriculum Content: Permaculture

Permaculture is a way of looking at the environment and responding to it. It emphasizes sustainability and ecology. It is not a separate scientific discipline and relies on the results of conventional science. Its principles are at the heart of this school and I am already talking to an architect and a permaculture consultant to ensure that the buildings will be in line with those principles.

Photo by Akil Mazumder on

Permaculture offers a useful way of looking at what a Nature School can be without the limitations of the woodland/little kid model of the FSA and the pre-industrial and survival components of the Rutter model. It would grow quite naturally out of the attitudinal approaches that are fostered in the Early Years nature work of kindergarten models. Mindfulness, curiosity and close observation are key skills in permaculture that can grow over time and be linked with sophisticated scientific and technical modelling as skillsets grow.

There are curriculum models for permaculture. The English Permaculture Association offers certificated courses with a handy checklist of content. They rely heavily on the work of Bill Mollison, Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual (1988). Mollison’s work grew out of small-scale agriculture and sustainability in the 1970s, but over time grew to include many other aspects of what is known as “the circular economy”. Permaculture has a broadening remit that in Mollison’s own words, “has come to encompass appropriate legal and financial strategies, including strategies for land access, business structures, and regional self-financing.”

One of the largest associations at the moment is the Permaculture Research Association with courses offered by Geoff Lawton, who you can find on Youtube.

It is not unusual for the majority of courses in permaculture to be short-duration content-specific courses for adults. There are some initiatives for schools, but they tend to be plug-ins, similar to the Forest School approach in the UK: additional components that school administrators can add in to their normal curriculum. Barefoot Gardens in California, for example, offers consulting and workshops to K-12 schools with an interesting range of projects and ideas, including the creation of a food forest. In Australia there are several high schools and many middle schools that have taken on the ideas of permaculture- Warrawong is a good example. In the USA permaculture has strong links with homesteading and home education: look at Permies, for example.

There are serious attempts to bring Sustainability into schools through project-based learning, such as Project Lead the Way:

Our activity-, project-, and problem-based (APB) instructional design centers on hands-on, real-world activities, projects, and problems that help students understand how the knowledge and skills they develop in the classroom may be applied in everyday life. The APB approach scaffolds student learning through structured activities and projects that empower students to become independent in the classroom and help them build skill sets to apply to an open-ended design problem.

Project Lead the Way

PLTW is a future-focused project that wants children to engage with real-world problems. It does not negate the formal taught curriculum but gives children ample opportunity to work together to think about their lives and their work in relation to the rest of the world. Permaculture can fit into this model. I do not want a whole school PBL model because I want children to have the freedom to engage in their own activities. I also value the work of teachers in conventional classrooms. However, there is a lot that can be learned from these large-scale organizations.


UNESCO has produced a draft document on sustainability for schools. It is a short document of some eighteen pages but it is written in a manner that validates the ideas and approach of this school.

Communities and experts agree that there is no one way of living that is most sustainable everywhere and always. While we can always learn from each other, it is important to remember that times change and that people and places are different. In our complex, ever-changing world, you must go beyond teaching specific, expert-endorsed ideas about sustainable development. You need to teach your students critical, creative, and futures thinking skills.

UNESCO Draft Guidelines on Sustainable and Climate-Friendly Schools

It takes a long time for this kind of document to percolate through the ossified layers of the conventional education system. However, as a small private school that is already largely in agreement with these principles, we have the freedom and the motivation to innovate and create. We can create a Nature School that truly looks forward not just for Abu Dhabi and the UAE, but for the world.

Regenerative Agriculture potential in Saudi Arabia — Date Palms & Camels

The Al Baydha Project is amazing! The video and story are narrated very well by Neal Spackman, who co-founded and directed some of the project . If you are into learning about conservation ecology, agroforestry, regenerative agriculture, permaculture, rural poverty and climate change, then check out the Al Baydha project in Saudi Arabia. This project […]

Regenerative Agriculture potential in Saudi Arabia — Date Palms & Camels

Senegal farmer grows lush oasis in the desert using permaculture techniques

I am investigating the permaculture in the desert for the Nature strand of MBAT. I want to move away from the woodland focus of northern Forest schools. This man in Senegal has achieved something remarkable!

Senegal native and permaculture pioneer Goran N’diaye has created a lush oasis in the middle of the desert in his homeland. At the Kaydara agro-ecological farm located in Sine Saloum in Senegal, director Goran N’diaye, has implemented a number of permaculture techniques. He first started by restoring the fertility of the soil, by creating a […]

Senegal farmer grows lush oasis in the desert using permaculture techniques — Life & Soul Magazine

Forest Schools


MBAT is a small school set in Nature. Forest schools provide one model of how to approach work with children in Nature and, in this post, I want to discuss what they have to offer. It is an attempt to clear up a few issues in my own mind about what a Nature school is and how it relates to the other key concept of our school: freedom. How would a Free Nature school fit into the broader global network of ideas about the environment?

I’m going to follow Charles Olson’s advice and let the roots dangle. I do this because I don’t want to impose my culture on you unknowingly. I am English. Forest Schools have become increasingly popular in the UK since the 1990s. The idea is linked to an alternative tradition that goes back through William Morris and the Romantics to the Civil War in the seventeenth-century. There is a link in English culture between freedom and nature, and the woodlands have a special part to play. Think Robin Hood. These are my roots; will they transplant to another culture and geography?

Of course questions about the environment and ecology are not limited to the UK. It is quite possible to build a school based on environmental education without woodland. MBAT is in the UAE, which does not share the English alternative tradition and does not have woodlands. This is the reason I want to write this out. It seems to me that there are some aspects of free, Nature schools that hang on like clods of earth to my roots. I have to decide whether they will survive being transplanted or not.

Forest School Association

The Forest School Association is the largest organization of its type in the UK at the moment. It mostly provides services to state primary schools , so it is not a school as such. There is one near where I grew up. Otterhead is a good example of a Forest School. The trained outdoor activity leaders allow “doing and making” activities which may be forced out of a formal curriculum. Children learn pre-industrial activities: cooking on a fire, working with tools, exploring woodland. The leaders also stimulate the imagination. The staff have a wide range of interests and abilities which they can communicate to the children because they are not bound by a formal structure: it is a child-centred learning environment.

Our unique teaching techniques and engaging outdoor activities vary depending on the student’s age and needs. 

All of our activities are tailored to suit the needs of the individual

Otterhead Forest School

The FSA website says that the idea for their approach comes from Denmark. They have done such a good job of branding that some academics have criticized what other educators do as not being “authentic Forest School.” (You can read an article in the Guardian on the subject here.) It is clear that the idea of giving children these experiences is popular and growing. There is no clear reason why the FSA should have a monopoly on good practice, however, since the idea is older than they admit, as we shall see.

The FSA works with teachers to help them integrate outdoor education into the mainstream and relate it to conventional learning targets. They have set up a nationwide network of “schools” and training centres. Their approach is explicitly “learner-centred”. They do not have a formal curriculum to push, although exploring the natural world will inevitably create content. Have a look at this video:

This is holistic learning. This means that the individual components of the programme are not dictated by a formal scheme of work. They believe that each child will benefit from the experience of contact with nature, all according to their own personalities or preferences, and that this will have knock-on effects on academic work in the classroom.

The Forestry Commission supported research to investigate the effects of this model. You can see the report here. They say that the experience benefits children in the following ways:

  • Confidence: children had the freedom, time and space to learn and demonstrate independence
  • Social skills: children gained increased awareness of the consequences of their actions on peers through team activities such as sharing tools and participating in play
  • Communication: language development was prompted by the children’s sensory experiences
  • Motivation: the woodland tended to fascinate the children and they developed a keenness to participate and the ability to concentrate over longer periods of time
  • Physical skills: these improvements were characterised by the development of physical stamina and gross and fine motor skills
  • Knowledge and understanding: the children developed an interest in the natural surroundings and respect for the environment

This does not make the direct claims for the benefits on numeracy and literacy you can see in the FSA promotional video.

The role of trees in stimulating the imagination is shown in a video made by John Cree, the Director of the FSA:

In this video Cree starts with the imagination and perceptions of the child and only then moves on to learning. This is sentimental in the Romantic tradition of Wordsworth’s Prelude: the “fair seed time” of his childhood; an intimate connection with Nature giving rise to the birth of imagination. It is only later on that Cree relates the experiences children have in the woods to developing skills in the classroom: Language, Maths and Science.

Experiences for Little Kids

The overwhelming sense of the FSA program is that it is designed for young or very young children. This arises directly from the fact that the Danish source is a model of kindergarten education.

There is a problem here. When we design free schools, we have to think about why we are creating them and who they are for. Is a little free woodland activity for kids enough? Will it peg onto the conventional curriculum or will there be a systematic attempt to create an environment that embodies our principles? What happens when children grow up? Do they suddenly lose their interest in Nature? We may be unwittingly giving children the idea that Nature is for tots. The hidden curriculum- that set of assumptions we are only ever dimly aware of- insinuates that Nature is good when you are little, but you grow out of it.

Photo by Caleb Oquendo on

As a curriculum designer and manager it preoccupies me: I see it as equally nonsensical to have a Nature program only for little kids as starting to learn French and then dropping it after a couple of years. It reminds me of a talk I gave for the Asociación de Libre Enseñanza a few years ago. I had been working as a consultant for a few years and was becoming preoccupied by the fact that almost all of the projects were for little kids. “What happens when these children grow?” I asked. Their older kids in the primary free schools seemed a little resentful: they were aware that they were going to be shunted up to a secondary school they were not prepared for. Even the good projects didn’t spend nearly enough time thinking about what happened when children graduated out of their free schools.

This is not an issue for the FSA because it is an add-on to conventional education. MBAT, however, is a Nature school that will include principles of ecological awareness right through. We cannot limit it to an experience for little kids and remain true to the guiding principles of the school.

Moderately child-centred

Leonard and I had the clear feeling that a moderately child-centred primary education was good enough for most kids. We both knew excellent conventional teachers who did remarkable things with 5-9 year-olds. The nut of the problem is in the 9-13 age range: children who have the academic basics and are bursting with creative energy.

We have always felt that the mainstream squanders these energies by relentlessly pushing the formal curriculum. It interrupts children’s developmental narrative by forcing these “veteran kids” to move up to secondary school before they are done with childhood. Many free Nature schools are also guilty of turning a blind eye to the issues. It is easier to get certification as a primary school and free schools shy away from thinking seriously about how they could apply their well-considered principles to older children.

In this project we have the privilege of thinking about the whole developmental range from pre-school to 18. A good curriculum manager looks at the experiences of children in the school and tries to ensure that there is a link-up between different phases. And, in a school like this one, that is driven by principles, we want to see the core principles threading through the school from the beginning to the end. Nature is a core value in the school and we cannot just have it as an add-on for primary school children: it must inform teaching and learning all the way through. Little kids’ experience of Nature must lead into a coherent program that feeds its way into the tougher disciplines of Environmental Science.

So, my feeling about the FSA is that it provides great experiences to children at young ages, but that it doesn’t give a clear enough or consistent enough vision for how to work with these veteran kids. I had to look further back in history to find more promising roots.

The Forest School

The Forest School of Cuthbert Rutter was quite different to the FSA. It was set up in 1929 in Sandy Balls on the edge of the New Forest in the south of England. It is the kind of woodland that might have inspired Shakespeare’s forest of Arden and, far from being new, dates back to William the Conqueror at least. Rutter was the nephew of Ernest Westlake, an innovative thinker in the English dissenting tradition. You can read more about Westlake on the website You can read about Rutter on the Woodlands website.

the ultimate aim is to develop as many as possible of the child’s instincts, faculties and potentialities as are not antagonistic to the society in which he lives.”

Ernest Westlake

Ernest Westlake’s idea in this quotation is reminiscent of A.S. Neill. They were of the same generation, both were pacifists, and they saw the faults in conventional schooling. There is a lot to meditate on in these few words: what school these days would use the word “instincts”? The idea that industrialized society, with its mass education, was doing something inhumane to children was a common theme of the early twentieth-century that also found expression in the Wandervögel, the Hitler Youth, the Boy Scouts and the Little Commonwealth. (I did some investigation on a Galician nationalist youth group a few years ago, which you can read about here.) These were also the years of the development of the Youth Hostel Association.

There are key differences with the FSA, For a start, it was a private school for the children of wealthy parents. It was for children of all ages and had an emphasis on the woodland crafts that “veteran kids” could learn. There was an ambitious formal curriculum, but children were given considerable freedom; the school assumed that children wanted to learn and the exercise of responsibility was one of the ways to succeed in formal learning. It did not try to fit in with the mainstream; it was clearly in opposition to current trends in state and private education. This was not a school that needed to fit in with the National Curriculum, which was a hazy thing in the pre-war years when the Forest School flourished. Rutter devised his own program that aimed to give youngsters a real experience of freedom, self-reliance and personal power.

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on

The school ran for ten years before the outbreak of World War II, when it was forced to close due to the conscription of its highly-qualified staff.

The most remarkable feature was woodcraft and survival skills. You might compare it to the Boy Scouts which had a similar method of badges of merit and there is a slight connection between Westlake and Baden Powell. Prior to setting up The Forest School, Westlake set up the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry during the First World War. The first lodge was set up in 1916 at the Quaker school of Sidcot in Somerset. I know this school well and have a friend who taught there for a while. It is nestled in the beautiful Mendip hills with easy access to wood and farmland; the perfect place for this kind of venture.

His intention was to provide a pacifist option to the imperialistic, jingoistic and nationalistic Scouts. He knew Baden Powell and sympathized with some of his intentions but he was a Quaker himself. Quakers are pacifists. It was the second year of the Great War and he wanted to provide an option for youngsters that did not have the militaristic overtones of the Scouts. The crossovers, however, are clear. My father was a Scout. For the Queen’s Medal, he had to swim across a lake keeping a flame alight; this was also one of the graduation “tests” in The Forest School.

The Forest School adopted the OWC system of tests and trials, so that, for example the “Tracker Tree” had to be climbed in order for a child to progress into the Tracker group and there were other tests like the “lone vigil test” in which pupils spent a night in the woods together and wrote an account of their experience in order to advance into an older group.  Other tests were swimming across a lake holding a lighted candle in one’s mouth, and silence tests where you had to remain silent for a whole day.

Children were encouraged to take part in a range of different activities outdoors. It wasn’t child-centred in the same sense as the FSA. The learning wasn’t individualized. The idea of freedom was closer to Summerhill, in the sense that there were teachers teaching subjects but the children had the freedom to go or not to go to the lessons as they wanted.

Westlake believed that the future of mankind depended on educating children to appreciate life through all stages of evolution.  His vision was to create a “Forest School” where people could experience nature at first hand in a natural environment, and so began to encourage camping and woodcraft activities on his land.

Deeper Roots: Seton

The roots of the Rutter and Westlake vision go back into the nineteenth-century. Ernest Thompson Seton was a naturalist, artist and writer who grew up in the UK in a large ship-building family. When disaster struck the family business, his father set off for Canada with his eleven boys in 1866. In his colorful autobiography, Seton describes how his vision of education in the outdoors was affected by his own childhood. He relished being able to use tools as a child on the farm, set himself building challenges, was a close observer of natural life and was often alone. When he grew up he went to live with a tribe of Sioux Indians and learnt their language, sharing knowledge and skills. This experience underlay his foundation of Woodcraft Indians in 1902, an organization that directly influenced Westlake and Rutter. Westlake’s OWC is a direct descendant of Woodcraft Indians.

These roots explain something of the pre-industrial focus of Forest Schools to this day. Seton lived an authentic frontiersman life and felt the benefit of learning how to do and make things for himself. He learnt to trap his own food, build his own cabin, make and repair his own tools, all the while keeping a set of Nature journals that recorded his experiences. He began to see the possible applications of his experiences with other children when his property in Cos Cob suffered a spate of vandalism:

Seton with his Woodcraft Camp

Seton visited the local school and invited the culprits to camp at his estate for a weekend, during which time he told them stories about Native Indians and how they lived and worked in harmony with Nature.  As a result he founded “Woodcraft Indians” in 1902.

Seton set up Woodcraft Indians, which might be considered the progenitor of all Forest Schools. He mixed in a good dollop of his own experiences with a creative acumen in creating a marketable organization for the youngsters of his day. He was a well-known published writer, who specialized in stories about animals, and he used this experience to create the “Birch-Bark Roll.” This was the guiding document for the organization, dividing his “Indians” into different levels and categories. Westlake used this as the basis for his own Order of Woodcraft Chivalry.

Woodcraft Indians would not get past the political correctness commissars today. It is a clear case of cultural appropriation. Seton used his authentic experiences as a frontier naturalist to create an organization that aimed to help young people by teaching them how to be “little Indians.” He appropriated Indian customs, traditions, beliefs and practices in whatever way he thought might be appealing to his kids. It was the translation of authentic frontier experiences into a more urban environment. The tension between the wild life and civilization is evident in his autobiography. At one moment he is in London and then he is in Manitoba; he goes to New York and then escapes again to the wilds. .Seton was self-aware enough to reject an association with Boy Scouts of America, in a manner that is parallel to Westlake’s rejection of Baden Powell, but there are aspects of his vision that are a little troubling.

Seton’s autobiography

Pagan Overtones

Both the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry and Woodcraft Indians are well-described on This website was set up by George Knowles whose website describes his investigations into pagan beliefs, Wicca and magic. Both the OWC and Woodcraft Indians were connected with paganism. Seton explicitly introduced young people to the pagan ideas of the Indians. He was an honorary Grand Chieftain of Westlake’s Order of Woodcraft Chivalry in the UK.

When I mentioned the roots of Forest Schools at the beginning of this post, I was not really aware of this pagan connection. I was thinking more of the Quaker tradition with its roots in the English Revolution of the seventeenth-century, when Diggers and Levellers directly associated freedom of conscience with experience of “God’s Nature.” They had a ditty that went:

When Adam delved and Eve span

Who was then the gentleman?

John Ball, 1381 (precursor to the Diggers)

Common land, forests and wilderness have a strong cultural association with freedom-loving individualists in England. We grow up with stories of Robin Hood. As we grow older we read Shakespeare and see the role that woodlands play in the imagination as well as the economy of the country. It is not all about poking a bonfire with a stick. These are themes that run through English poetry and political thinking.

The pagan connection is not surprising. The woodlands stimulate people into thinking of nature spirits, elves and magic. Seton clearly thought that the Plains Indians had a closer relationship to Nature than the city-dwelling sophisticates to whom he sold his stories. It wasn’t surprising that Westlake, having adopted Seton’s Birch Bark Rolls, would attract people who were interested in this dimension of his idea to the exclusion of the rest.

Westlake died in a car crash in 1922. His son was not able to take over the running of the OWC. I will leave the description of what happened to Knowles:

The role of British Chief of the Order was therefore given to Harry Byngham, a decision that proved to be a disaster.  Byngham was not bent on Christianity or Quakerism, and soon after began promoting paganism and naturism.  He even changed his name to Dion (short for Dionysus) and worshiped the deities Pan and Artemis.

George Knowles

Even now, in our scientific times, it is not uncommon to go into a primary school staff room in the UK and find someone who takes Morris Dancing a little too seriously. There is a strong cultural tradition that links pagan festivities, folklore, teachers and education. I would say it is something to be wary of, but I am not prepared to throw away the individualism that I see in Seton’s life and work lightly.

Dissenting Individualists

Individualism can seem a little old-fashioned. In my last post I said that the human focus of Classical Humanism will not help you in your study of Astrophysics. You might say the same about individualized education and the environment. One of my daughters is an Environmental Scientist and, when she was studying, she quite quickly came to the point where she could laugh at my “backyard science”. That hands-on stuff doesn’t necessarily relate to environmental work. Martha’s work involves large-scale statistical modelling, data-crunching and measurement.

She came at her career by taking arts and languages up to 18, then cramming science to get into university for the degree she wanted. It wasn’t easy. Would she have been better off ditching the Arts earlier and dedicating more of her time to hard science from an earlier age? I guess if you looked at the statistics of who makes the most money and occupies the highest positions in environmental organizations, you might come to that conclusion. However, she came to it through a very English route of dissent. She saw there was something wrong with the world and wanted to do something about it.

Dissent is a structured form of disagreement. It often takes the form of saying no to power. The dissenting tradition in the UK goes back to the English Civil War and the Puritan Revolution. The most radical reformers in that revolution held that Nature belonged to everyone. It should not be parcelled up, fenced in and sold off. Dissenters believed that each individual had a personal relationship with God that was not mediated by rituals, priests or church hierarchy.

The most famous dissenter was the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley. He popped into my head the other day when I was reading a comment by Benjamin Freud, who introduced me to the term “commoning” which he proposed as a response to the environmental crisis. We need to think in terms of the bio-collective, he says. This reminded me of the Diggers who took over common land on St George’s Hill in Surrey in 1649 and planted beans and other vegetables. The common lands were unfarmed lands outside villages and towns. They were used for “common” pasturage. Winstanley had the revolutionary idea that there was no justification for people starving in the name of property.

Martha is not a Digger, though she works the allotment and grows vegetables with her brother, Laurence. They both seem to be able to combine rejection with activity, energy and positive forward movement. In her case the activity includes but is not limited to her work as a scientist. There is a broader sense of feeling that the decisions you make about what you do with your life are important; that life is not just a matter of following the path that is apparently laid down at school.

Her brother, Laurence, would have loved to work with Seton. At the moment he is working and studying, but dedicates his free time to outdoor activities and crafts, swimming in icy lakes like his grandfather and making wicker baskets. They might both read what I write and have a good laugh, but I see them as being true to their roots.

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The question of how to turn this dissenting, hands-on tradition into a modern school in a super modern country such as UAE will have to wait for my next post. I have plenty of ideas, but it will take some work to figure it out in enough detail for it to make any sense. However, the key to the question is to allow children- and especially veteran kids- the freedom to engage in productive activity. We are going to do this by providing activity rooms that will not be tied to the conventional curriculum. If you are interested in seeing how that plan will work out, you will have to wait for the next post.

See you then!

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Human Scale

What do we mean when we talk about human-scale education?  There are many features of this school that are designed to be human-scale.  We have even looked at an organization going by that name in the United Kingdom.  It promotes small schools, community awareness, parental engagement, good management and humanly-relevant learning.  These are all issues close to my heart, but I am aware of two other concepts relating to human-scale.  One is Classical Humanism.  The other is anthropocentrism, which is taken in a negative sense by environmentalists.  In this post I want to look at these three ideas and try to tease them out.  We will inevitably have to look at the term child-centred, as well.  I don’t have the right answers and welcome your ideas.

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We start looking for smaller models when we feel that big schools are not human-scale.  Something feels wrong about a school that looks like a factory.  One part of this is the sheer size of a modern school.  Another part is the systems that operate on children.  Curriculum models, tests and assessments compare children’s performance according to international standards.  Schools do not work upwards from the unique individual in front of them.  They do not even work up from a unique local culture.  They work down towards the child from an established structure of knowledge.  Self-sufficiency, in all its senses, has become a Romantic dream.  Education aspires to fit students into a global economy. 

Human-scale educators look the other way.  They encourage children to learn traditional craft skills, to gather in village sized communities and to get direct experience of the natural world.  Child-centred educators go a step further and allow learning to arise naturally from the interests of children.  This inevitably leads to pre-industrial activities: play, making and doing. 

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If you feel that the job of education is to prepare children for adult life, you might ask some questions about this.  Who grows or makes things for themselves nowadays?  Almost everyone buys their food at a supermarket and goods in shops.  Why bother having human-scale activities in a school?  You don’t need to know how to make things when you can earn enough money to buy them.  Why have small communities and shared decision-making if that will not be reflected in adult life?  A human-scale education has to defend itself from the charge that it is introducing children to an anachronistic set of values that they will never encounter in the “real” world.

Classical Humanism

Classical Humanism transformed Europe.  It arose with the classical revival of the Italian Renaissance.  At the core of Classical Humanism is the idea of humanitas, a common set of values that come from being human and lead to compassion, benevolence and virtue.    

In the famous image of Vitruvian man by Leonardo, you see a man’s body set within a circle and a square.  At the sides are quotations of measurements and proportions from De architectura, a treatise by the Roman architect Vitruvius.  Leonardo and his contemporaries studied the human form to discover the underlying patterns of the universe.  Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel in Florence, for example, is the architectural embodiment of this aesthetic: its proportions are human-scale.  When you are in that space you do not feel awe or wonder; you feel a sense of harmony as the scale of your body is reflected in the space around you.

Humanists believed that human scale and proportion could be extrapolated outwards.  The macrocosm was visible in the microcosm.  Just as beauty and proportion came from the human body, the human mind was sufficient to understand Nature and the Universe.  Humanism was an intellectual movement that had education at its heart.  Its programme of study included grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history and moral philosophy.  The object was to develop virtue- understanding, benevolence, compassion and mercy.  It was a philosophy of education that promoted action in the world, not mere contemplation.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council puts ethics at the forefront of its advice for new schools.  This is reminiscent of Classical Humanist education.  Arab culture had a different trajectory from European.  I don’t mean to suggest that ADEC’s approach is Classical Humanism by another name.  However, it is clear that in the UAE there is a coherently expressed desire for education that fosters the moral understanding that in the West is a part of Classical Humanism.  The West, however, has tacked away from this tradition and headed off on a different path. 

The Decline of Classical Humanism

A Classical Humanist education was an essential training for political and administrative life up to recently.  Oxford and Cambridge only removed the requirement of Latin in 1960.  It lingered in grammar and private schools: I had to study Latin in the seventies.  By then the English Literary canon led by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Wordsworth and Dickens had pushed the Classics into the background, but the intention was the same.  A good reader would be a better leader.

Other languages were studied so as to be able to read the classic literature in them: Calderón, Cervantes and Lope de Vega in Spanish; Molière and Voltaire in French.  You read the “greats” of a country’s literature in order to understand the roots of its culture.  There was an assumption that people had local cultures that were uniquely understandable through their languages and literature.

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The way languages are taught these days shows the falling away of Classical Humanist values.  Language learning is functional.  The reading requirement is considerably less than it used to be: readings instead of whole books; fewer classics and more contemporary literature; more prose and less poetry.  Film is given parity of esteem.  It is assumed that young people do not read books and reading books is seen as a leisure activity rather than an essential part of character formation. It is better to learn how to communicate in a business meeting than waste time on old-hat moral exemplars from the past.   The canon of “greats” has been comprehensively undermined by changes in values.

Leonardo’s Vitruvian man shows why Classical Humanism is no longer the basis of education.  The idea that the proportions of the human body are relevant to the universe- that the macrocosm can be seen in the microcosm- won’t help you in your study of Astrophysics.  The universe was much smaller for the humanists, history since Creation was measurable in thousands of years and no one knew about genes or evolution.  Foreign lands and their traditions were distant and poorly-understood.  The world has opened up.  Why not read Confucius and Lao Tzu instead of Plato and Cicero?  And why bother if you are not interested?  Algorithms and social psychology seem to have better predictive value in mass societies than philosophy and poetry.

Humanitas, the prime value of Classical Humanist education, does not translate well to the age of mass education.  It was a training for the leaders of the republic, not for the workers.  The plebeians, the vulgus, were never intended to think themselves capable of the kind of moral decisions that leaders made.  The plebs are consistently ridiculed in classic literature.  A classical education was for rulers. 


Humanitas is the epitome of anthropocentrism and Leonardo’s Vitruvian man might be its emblem.  Critics of anthropocentrism, like #benjaminfreud, suggest we should quickly move away from this way of thinking. 

The environmental crisis in all its aspects seems to be the result of a human-centred way of thinking.  Extinctions, collapsing eco-systems, desertification, degraded forests and industrial farming that creates immense mono-cultures reducing bio-diversity are all symptoms.  Can we point the finger at Classical Humanism?  Is the wisdom of the classical tradition horribly linked to an exploitative attitude to nature and a range of nasty -isms: racism, colonialism, supremacism?

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Anthropocentrism is a paradoxical theory.  It says that Man is the problem because he is at the centre of Creation in his own imagining.  We have to change this way of thinking so that we no longer see the rest of the natural world as resources to be used for our benefit.  Seeing that man-made climate change is our doing, we must re-evaluate our scale of human values; give an equal moral and ethical ontology to the rest of the natural world.  If we don’t do this we are heading for disaster.

It is paradoxical because no other animal is capable of this kind of reflection.  Even by suggesting that humans could move away from the moral centre, it asserts that they are exceptional: we are so exceptional that we should stop seeing ourselves as exceptional.  Furthermore, the emphasis in anti-anthropocentric circles on indigenous communities, nomads, tribes and forgotten ethnicities is deeply Romantic.  It calls to mind the nineteenth century university graduates who wandered around Europe seeking out forgotten languages and cultures.

I am not suggesting this is good or bad.

You may have noticed in the preceding paragraphs how many times I wrote “we have to”, “we should” and “we must.”  That “we” includes humanity as a whole.  Another paradox, because even though you go to an Amazonian tribe to refine your arguments, your feet are still in the halls of power.  You aspire to come back with ideas that will topple the orthodoxy, overturn the establishment and definitively defeat the evil supremacists, racists, colonialists and humanists.  If they persist in holding on to their mistaken beliefs, you will use the superiority of your intellectual arguments to gain the upper hand in universities and advisory bodies.  When the education system is in your hands, you will be able to mould future generations in a better image.

I don’t need to say that this is an authoritarian argument.

Child Scale

A.S. Neill thought that no adult was wise enough to replace a child’s free play with educational programmes of his own devising.  A programmatic education based on the idea that “right-thinking” is the province of adults is wrong-headed.  This goes for militarists and environmentalists equally.

I am aware that I am falling into the trap of talking in broad general terms.  That won’t do.  The argument for freedom comes from a set of responses to situations and readings.  I can be more or less aware of them, but can never get to the bottom of them.  You never really understand why you do a thing.  When you fully accept that, you are open to a more generous interpretation of the world.

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Let me give you an example of one of these situations.  My nephew, Luke is 9 years old.  He likes inventing catapults, swings, parachutes and zip-lines for his toys.  He is constantly making things and carries around a notebook where he writes lists and letters to imaginary people.  At the back of his grandmother’s garden, he has made a series of bug hotels.  This project started with a box for his “pet” snail, who he named and adopted.  Now he spends a lot of time kneeling or lying on the ground watching, looking and talking.  He talks a lot.

This is Luke’s free activity.  He stopped going to play tennis with his dad because he wanted to do his own thing.  He wasn’t affected by the idea that sport is a Good Thing.  I have the feeling that school pretty much exhausts his tolerance for being improved.  His uncle says he is an annoying child.  “He just has to learn to shut up and do what he is told,” he says.

That is certainly the opinion of the school he goes to.  Every week they give him spellings for homework, telling him to “Look.  Cover.  Write. Check.”  They say, “On this paper you have five columns.  Do your spellings once a day.”  I catch him copying out the whole page in one go to get it out of the way.  It’s not that he wants to do badly in the spelling test.  It’s just that his interest is somewhere else.  At 9 years old he already sees the adult world as a powerful opponent to his own interests.  It shouldn’t be any surprise that he rejects its demands, subverts them and, sadly, internalizes them.

He is naughty at school and the teacher asked his mum to stay and talk to her after class.  “He doesn’t pay attention, distracts other children and talks too much.”  Brother, can he talk!  The teacher said she was putting him on report and his mum went home flustered.  They sat around the kitchen table trying to get to the bottom of it.  Luke was grinning at being the centre of attention.  At this point his brother, Jack, said, “You have to take this seriously, Luke.  They put me on report when I was at primary and that went with me all the way to secondary.  It’s not just now.  They won’t forget.”

Human-scale, Humanist, Anthropocentric, Child-scale

I started by writing about human-scale education, referring to HSE in the UK.  I said that I can’t think of the words human scale without thinking of the Classical Humanist tradition I was brought up in.  This tradition has faded away in the West, replaced by the dominance of science and technology and the needs of mass education.  Abu Dhabi seems to be trying to maintain something of the moral and ethical focus that underlies humanitas, albeit with different roots.

Just as the Classical Humanist tradition was on its last legs, its fiercest critics appeared.  The concept of anthropocentrism was invented.  No one calls themselves anthropocentric; it is something of a strawman.  Environmentalists, however, insist that the dominant Western culture is the root of anthropocentric evils and that we have to move away from that model.  Indigenous and marginalized cultures are often invoked as having better ways of relating to the natural world.  These small-scale communities might see themselves reflected in HSE.

Human-scale education seems to demand that we think of child-centred education.  Teachers trying to make an education relevant to children is not really child-centred.  If schools allow themselves to be dominated by the formal curriculum, they squeeze out the child’s interests.  I told the story of Luke to show how a child who is acting exactly the way a 9 year old might be expected to act can be penalised by schooling.  There are no right answers.  Does he have to shut up and get on with his school work?  Should he bow his stubborn neck to the yoke of discipline?  If he doesn’t, what will happen to him?  He is comprehensively deprived of his voice in his school and there is no prospect that this situation will change within the institutional settings he is likely to encounter.

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I believe that you should design a school from the bottom up.  Yes, there are structures of knowledge.  And, yes, teachers should be competent in teaching the formal curriculum to children.  Freedom, however, is a core value at MBAT.  That freedom does not exist to promote our world-view, but to give children free choice of action in a community where their voice can be heard.  It is not freedom to do absolutely whatever they like.  They learn to live with the consequences of their actions; they learn the difference between freedom and license.

But any school that cannot recognise the value of Luke’s free learning fails by any standard.

Staff Handbook

This post is about our staff handbook. It will interest you if you are a teacher or a teaching assistant.  It contains guidance on working at MBAT.  There are two sections: the first section talks about common features of the whole school and what we are trying to achieve; the second section, will be written by your team leader, and talks about specific features of your part of the school. 

Common Features


  • Shape a future for World Peace
  • Create a community based on compassion, dialogue and equality
  • Respect and honor our place in the Natural World
  • Inspire young people to be loving custodians of Nature
  • Promote good physical and mental health
  • Develop independent learning
  • Give all children the essentials of personal academic progress
  • Engage parents in their children’s learning


There are four team leaders in the school:

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  • Hadiqa team leader manages:
    • Pre-school
    • Years 1-4
  • Sama team leader manages:
    • Year 5
    • Clubhouse
  • Bahr team leader manages:
    • Upper School
    • Senior School
  • Distance Learning Coordinator manages:
    • Additional teaching staff: IT, PE, Farm Educator
    • SENCO and team

Your team leader is on the Senior Leadership Team along with the Bursar and the Principal.  They work together to ensure that the vision and mission of the school are put into practice.  Sometimes this will include liaison and cross-phase planning, but your team leader is independent and answers directly to the Principal.  The school is small.  It will never be bigger than 500.  Even so, we divide it up into a system of interconnecting small communities because we believe that small, intimate communities are good for children and staff.

Leaders have a lot of freedom to develop their teams using their own unique skills and experience; your team leader wrote the section of this Handbook that refers to your teaching area.  She helps the Principal to set the terms of your job description, an essential document that you must understand.  Your job description details the specific terms of your employment, your responsibilities and obligations.

You can develop over time at the school.  On the basis of a Termly Chat, which you must have every term, your Team Leader can recommend to the Principal additional training, revisions to your job description and salary increments for responsibility and effort.  The SLT reviews all job descriptions annually.  If you put your heart into the school, the school will reward you.


As children grow up through the school, they have a close and direct understanding of Nature.  They take part in real activities on the Farm, in the gardens and grounds, and by the sea.  They investigate for themselves.  Teaching at MBAT is not the same as teaching at other schools.  You won’t force all children’s activity through projects or class work.  This may be tricky if you are used to more directive teaching or comprehensive project-based learning.  We will help you with training and coaching.

Some of your time will include cooperative work

It’s not all running around outside.  We want a solid core curriculum: English, Maths and Science will be prominent on the timetable.  As an experienced and reflective teacher, you will know what methods to employ to help children towards mastery in the core.  We don’t have a particular pedagogical model we are asking you to follow.  We have taken you on because you are a good teacher.  You do not have to twist yourself in knots thinking up alternative ways to teach.  You plan your own lessons.

Some of your time will include cooperative work.  You may also have to lead some projects that fill out the curriculum and provide children with a broad and balanced education.  Your team leader will create the term calendar of foundation subject projects and set up the planning and evaluation schedule.

We also want children to have free time and space to work on their own ideas.  We don’t want you to fill their days with teacher-led classes.  At each level there are activity rooms where they can work on their own.  You have an important role in resourcing and equipping this area, but you should not be setting learning objectives or outcomes.  Be involved, yes; turn every activity into a teaching opportunity, no.


The school is set in Nature and we emphasize natural development: human-scale, face-to-face, respectful and mindful. 

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Early years classes are small.  We think children learn naturally through free play, but we also stimulate their curiosity through projects that reinforce the school’s focus on the natural environment.  Free play and projects continue all the way through the school.  We don’t squeeze the joy out of learning in the Upper School just because they are preparing for examinations.  Our students remain in contact with the sea, the farm and the natural world.

Our emphasis on nature and natural learning is also reflected in our approach to parents.  You may have more contact with parents at MBAT than you have had in previous schools, because we welcome parental engagement in children’s learning.  We want to make the progression to school gentle and natural.  Our aim is for children to be happy, secure, self-confident and self-regulating.

At each level one member of staff takes on the role of Parental Engagement Coordinator.  This is a little more than arranging parent-teacher conferences.  We want parents to be actively involved in their children’s learning.  The 40% distance option plays an important part in this.

Distance Learning

Parents and children can choose to take advantage of the 40% distance option.  We have to work with parents: they need to understand clearly what we are working towards whenever their children are working from home.  Conversely we need to accept parents’ contributions to their children’s learning and the value of their real experiences- not just academic exercises.  If a child is in Athens with his parents, it would be absurd for him to stay in the hotel room to do exercises.  Real life can enter the digital portfolio.

At some times of the year you will have fewer children in your classroom.  Coordinating the curriculum so that children who are not present do not fall behind and still feel like a part of their communities is a challenge.  For this reason, we give great importance to the Distance Learning Coordinator.

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Your team leader will arrange training sessions with the DLC.  You will learn about:

  • Online portfolios
  • Online exercises
  • Online community (forums and chat)
  • The Flipped Classroom

You are probably familiar with the first three.  You flip a classroom by preparing the exposition of your lessons to be recorded and dropped in the online classroom.  Children can access it from anywhere and as many times as they like.  We’ll show you how it can work and, of course, you can work collaboratively with colleagues.

We want our students to grow up with an imaginative and creative approach to IT and technology.  Our distance learning is not just about doing exercises online.  You probably have ideas about how to make it real and we want to hear them.  40% of the year is a significant proportion and you should give the Distance Learning program a corresponding level of attention.

Freedom of Choice of Action

Freedom in Nature is a core value.  We value freedom because it leads to creativity and invention.

This phrase- freedom of choice of action- includes the word action.  Children come to school to do things, not just hang around.  They have choices about things to do, but being completely passive can’t be a long-term option.  They can’t just wait at the edges making comments on what other people are doing.

Giving children freedom to make choices does not mean letting them do just whatever they like.  You may find it tricky to explain this because it is easy for kids to get confused and think they have the right to be rude, for example.  You will have to make clear to them that they have freedom, but they do not have licence; there is no freedom without consequences and there are some things they cannot choose to do or not do. 

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How do they know what they can and cannot do?  Well, they work it out with you.  We want you to create an environment in which children talk freely to discuss what they can and cannot do.  Sometimes you may have to step in, but compassionate dialogue is a core value of the school we expect you to take seriously.  You don’t just step in and give the answers to all problems because you are an adult.

Your team leader will guide you on the level of freedom that is OK for the children you are working with: choices become broader and more comprehensive as children mature through the school.  You will work with your colleagues to create environments where they have to make choices and take responsibility.  This is an essential part of your work.


This is another concept you have to explain to the children so you must have it clear in your own head first.  Authority in the school comes from the owners through the Principal and on to you.  We don’t want a centralized and authoritarian school, so we have created the communities to give staff and children more freedom.

You might say to the children you teach:

I am your teacher and I have the authority to make lots of decisions about the way things go in this classroom.  The Principal gives me the authority to say what we are going to do today and when we are going to do it.  What does authority mean?  It just means that I am in charge.  I can tell you what to do.

But I think there are lots of things that you can decide for yourselves.  I want to give you some of that authority.  Some things you can decide for yourself- just you.  Other things you can decide together as a group.

I can’t just let you do whatever you want right now, because that would be a disaster.  There are some things we are going to have to learn about living and working together.  But that is what I want.  I want you to make choices for yourselves.  And we are going to work towards that.

You have to remember that I am still in charge.  If things go badly, I might have to be the boss for a time.  But I think you are able to do this and we are going to start by…

You can come up with your own ideas about what you are going to start with.  It is a good idea to start with something simple: do we have to wear shoes in the classroom?  It may take some time for children to get used to the idea that you are not going to tell them what to do all the time.  They may have very few people in their lives who listen to what they say.  However, all children are capable of making decisions for themselves and taking part in communal decision-making.  This is the start of self-government.

Self-government and communities

Self-government does not fully come into effect in the school until Sama.  Hadiqa prepares children to start taking the responsibilities and leadership they assume in Sama, but their communities are class communities and they rely on their teachers for direction.

Self-government just means that the children can sort things out for themselves.  They may need help in organizing complicated projects, but they can take care of almost everything else.  They can organize the school day, take care of the facilities, sort out problems between people, make laws about community life, propose activities, work on their own or in groups, suggest projects or activities, sign up for the classes they need, run a newspaper, control their online community and portfolios, engage with the upper and lower school, and, last but not least, organize parties and festivities.

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They still need teachers to give them lessons in the subjects of the formal curriculum, so you won’t be able to drink coffee all day!

You will need some training to work like this.  We will show you how to set up community meetings that work, with a basic toolkit to get things going.  Over time, the Meeting will create its own culture.  It is not complicated but it can be difficult, especially if you have been trained to think that you have to make the decisions.  The art of it is to stand back, listen and not speak too much.  You also need the humility to accept that community meetings may not always go your way.

The school will grow over the first seven years to include a Sixth Form.  By the time students reach the Sixth form they will be effective at running committees and resolving problems, using the structures of meetings they have learnt lower down the school.

Educating within age groups

It is generally better for children to be educated with other children their own age. Schools go against this common-sense perception in two ways: they promote able children early and they hold back children to repeat a year.

Repeating a Year

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Let’s look at repeating first. It is fairly common practice in Spain for children to repeat a year. The logic goes that, if a child has not learnt the curriculum content of the year and demonstrated that knowledge in examinations, then he should repeat the year. The teachers who promote this practice are not cruel but the consequences for children are not good. Sometimes the final decision to repeat is not taken until the beginning of the new year, after retake examinations. So, the child gets a summer holiday filled with anxiety and extra work and may still be made to repeat.

Children who repeat are separated from their year group and placed in the one below. Their new classmates are most likely at a different developmental stage. After all, growing up is not all about physical size; there are other changes that take place as you mature and develop. These new classmates may be physically smaller, but intellectually smarter. Not only will the repeater have to study the same stuff all over again, he will have to do so with the knowledge that the other children are doing it better than him. A child may have unusual emotional resilience to deal with the humiliation of this situation, but I guess that would not be the norm. Research suggests that it is not good socially and emotionally or academically for children to be obliged to repeat a year when they are falling behind.

This is what the Educational Endowment Foundation says:

Evidence suggests that, in the majority of cases, repeating a year is harmful to a student’s chances of academic success. In addition, studies consistently show greater negative effects for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, suggesting that the practice is likely to increase educational inequality. 

Educational Endowment foundation

The advice from ADEC is also quite explicit with regard to repeating school years. They says that “students should normally be educated in a group consisting of students of the same age group, because research indicates that requiring students to repeat a grade level does not generally lead to the improvement of students’ educational level, attainment and achievements.”

Special Needs

They make the logical connection between the policy about moving up and Special Needs. After all, it is a school’s responsibility to provide an education for children with SEN at their level and within an age group of peers. You don’t give a child with SEN an end of year exam and keep them back for another year of the same if they do not meet your targets.

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All students on an Individual Education Plan who meet their objectives progress to the next age-appropriate placement and grade-level sequence. Schools are not permitted to retain or fail students with special needs in a grade/year level. If a student with special needs is not making the expected progress, this would suggest that the goals and objectives set forth in their personal Individual Education Plan need to be adjusted


If it makes sense for children with SEN, it makes sense for other children as well. The school and its teachers have a responsibility to ensure that all of the children are learning. Using examinations and tests as negative motivation is both counter-productive and cruel.

Free Schools

Some free schools get into a mess with year groups because they are just too small to be able to have children educated with their peers. This is a rather different situation to obliging children to repeat. The social and emotional atmosphere in small free schools is quite different to that in a larger school. It is more common for children to play with and study with children who are not exactly the same age as they are. This can give the feel of a big family or a tribe and has some appealing features.

Even so, the idea of progression is important.

What’s more, even though MBAT looks at free, forest and nature schools for inspiration it is not comparable. It is a small school, but it is not tiny. The school years are big enough for most children to have friends their own age, to move up with them and to grow together. We think it is good practice for all schools (and parents) to recognize and celebrate when children meet developmental milestones; to acknowledge the importance of children’s friendship groups to their overall sense of well-being. In school this means moving up a year.

Moving Up Before Time

Advancing children a year because they are bright is just as bad. MBAT will pay attention to children with particular talents and abilities, but they will not be promoted academically ahead of their group. It is simply unnecessary in a school so rich in opportunities and learning.

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I have seen schools where children were put into examination classes up to two years early. The curriculum planner had no idea what they would do after. This is just silly. Why on earth would you want to promote children early so that they can take examinations, get their pieces of paper and stick them in their back pocket? It makes a nonsense of learning. It reifies the importance of the piece of paper and diminishes the value of the subject itself.

Examinations are important and have their place, but they are not the same as learning. We want children to be active learners, not cynical examination passers collecting pieces of paper. This is not to say that examinations are not important. It is not at all to suggest that they do not have value as the passes that will open the doors to future education. But there is nothing gained by doing more exams than you need. There is nothing gained by sitting exams before time.

What do you think? Do you think ADEC has it right? What kind of education do you want?

Ethical Standards for Teachers

ADEC is the Abu Dhabi Education Council. It supervises education for all schools in Abu Dhabi, including private schools. The Council has produced an informative guide for private schools, which you can find on the website.

Today I want to share with you the Ethical Standards for teachers. Before I read these standards I was skeptical. I have experience working in a broad variety of schools and there always seemed to be some distance between the words in this kind of policy statement and practice on the ground. I was expecting something wordy and impractical.

These standards are quite the reverse. There is nothing here that you cannot understand and each of the twelve principles is well-supported by examples that explain what is meant. They start with the first Standard- respect for Islam- which is important to the overall ethical consideration of the country’s educational policy. You cannot read the guidance without being aware that ethical behavior in education is of the highest importance for ADEC.

I felt a great sense of relief when I read these standards. And that sensation was the more when I go to the end and read the prohibition on “engaging in conversation with students about sensitive issues – such as religion and politics – that do not serve any clear educational purpose and are not related to the School’s approved curriculum.” How much time-wasting and hand-wringing could be saved in school’s in the West, if that principle was adhered to!

Read the standards and let me know what you think.

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Standard 1 – Religion, culture, society’s customs and traditions: Educators will respect the Religion of Islam, respect the Arabic culture and UAE society’s values, morals, customs, and traditions.

Professional conduct includes, for example:

  • Showing reverence to Islamic values and practices and respecting other religions.
  • Complying with all principles imposed by the Islamic religion in the UAE.
  • Respecting UAE society’s values, morals, customs and traditions.
  • Respecting the national symbols of the UAE.

Prohibited unprofessional conduct includes, for example:

  • Behaving in a manner that is contrary to Islamic values in the classroom or other workplace.
  • Exhibiting disrespect toward UAE society’s values, morals, customs and tradition.

Standard 2 – Tolerance and respect for diverse cultures: Educators will foster an atmosphere of tolerance in Schools and the workplace. Professional conduct includes, for example:

  • Exhibiting tolerance and respect to individuals of different religious, ethnic or cultural backgrounds.
  • Taking all necessary procedures to ensure that classrooms and other workplaces are free from all forms of harassment and discrimination.
  • Treating all students and colleagues equitably, including those with special needs.

Prohibited unprofessional conduct includes, for example:

  • Discriminating against or harassing colleagues or members of the public on the grounds of religion, race, origin, social status, age, gender or against pregnant employees or those with a newborn.
  • Discriminating against or harassing students, on the grounds of religion, race, origin, social status, age or gender.
  • Engaging in conduct that represents any kind of extremism or cultural indoctrination.

Standard 3 –Dress code: Educators will dress appropriately in a manner consistent with official work attire and which does not contradict with UAE society’s values, morals, customs and traditions. Professional conduct includes, for example:

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  • UAE nationals observing the appropriate national dress.
  • Expatriates dress in a professional manner reflecting proper work attire.

Prohibited unprofessional conduct includes, for example:

  • Wearing any clothing that is tight-fitting or revealing or unsuitable for the work environment.

Standard 4 – Relationship with students: Educators will maintain a caring, professional relationship with all students, both inside and outside the classroom.

Professional conduct includes, for example:

  • Educators behaving in ways that promote the welfare of the students and which affords them the necessary care, and taking all actions within their power to ensure students’ safety.
  • Educators reporting to relevant authorities if they suspect that a student is being harmed or may possibly be harmed.
  • Educators working to meet the individual learning needs of all students and assisting them to achieve their potential and to develop their self-confidence.
  • Educators striving to create a safe and supportive emotional environment for students to learn and enjoy learning; one that is conducive to their knowledge, values and abilities and does not cause intimidation or embarrassment.
  • Educators striving to be fair and objective when dealing with students.
  • Educators promoting student health through the support of School health services and the facilitation of School health programs and initiatives implemented in the School by the School nurse, the Council, or other government entities (e.g. National Immunisation Program managed by HAAD), as approved by the Council.
  • Educators being aware of, and complying fully with, all of the Council’s regulations, policies and requirements related to student protection, health, care and welfare.

Prohibited Unprofessional Conduct includes for example:

  • Engaging in or encouraging inappropriate relationships with students inside or outside of the classroom, including any behaviour constituting sexual harassment or abuse.
  • Sending any inappropriate messages, pictures or other communication to students inside or outside of the classroom.
  • Using any form of discipline that involves corporal punishment, emotional or verbal abuse, or any punishment that may cause physical or emotional harm to students (e.g. ridiculing a student’s point of view).
  • Failure to discipline on-going bullying of a student (including cyber-bullying), which may result in physical or emotional harm to the student (see Policy (65)).
  • Behaving negligently or making decisions which endanger student welfare.
  • Using professional relationships with students for personal gain (e.g. private tutoring for students that are concurrently being taught by the teacher, asking for favours from the student’s Parents/Guardians, etc.).
  • Leniency in student grading, in a manner not consistent with the educational process.

Standard 5 – Relationship with community: Educators will respect and cooperate with Parents / Guardians and the local community in their daily work to advance student learning.

Professional conduct includes, for example:

  • Establishing open, honest and respectful relationships with Parents/Guardians and the local community.
  • Involving Parents/Guardians and the community in the decision-making process relating to students education and wellbeing.
  • Communicating all decisions relating to students’ learning clearly and promptly to students, Parents/Guardians and stakeholders in the community.

Prohibited unprofessional conduct includes, for example:

  • Disregarding the views and concerns of Parents/Guardians and the School community when making decisions about student learning.
  • Behaving in a rude or hostile manner when interacting with Parents/Guardians and the community.

Standard 6 – Relationships with colleagues: Educators shall follow direction from direct supervisors and commit to collaborating with their colleagues in the best interest of students and the education profession.

Professional conduct includes, for example:

  • Complying with all official instructions and decisions from their direct supervisors and from the relevant Council authorities.
  • Encouraging and supporting colleagues to adopt and adhere to high professional standards.
  • Collaborating with other Educators in a way that develops a positive, supportive professional environment for all.
  • Assisting in the preparation and induction of new Educators through mentorship and guidance.

Prohibited unprofessional conduct includes, for example:

  • Harassing a colleague verbally or physically, including any inappropriate behaviour that makes a colleague feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
  • Spreading false statements or slandering the reputation of a colleague.
  • Revealing confidential information concerning a colleague.
  • Intentionally excluding a colleague from work-related or professional activities or work-related information.
  • Preventing colleagues from carrying out their official duties.

Standard 7 – Communications: Educators will ensure that all interactions and communications with colleagues, students, Parents / Guardians and the public reflect the values of respect, wisdom, and integrity.

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Professional conduct includes, for example:

  • Ensuring that any public comments they make reflect the policies and priorities of their School and of the Council.
  • Ensuring that usage of the Council communication systems (e.g. computers, phones, emails, eSIS) does not include any communication that may be controversial or offensive.
  • Maintaining the confidentiality of information relating to students and colleagues unless disclosure is officially permitted and serves clear and specific professional purposes.

Prohibited unprofessional conduct includes, for example:

  • Making comments or statements, in an official or unofficial capacity, that disparage the reputation of the Council, the School or colleagues.
  • Sharing confidential or sensitive information with any party, inside or outside of their School, who is not authorised to have the information.

Standard 8 – Legal obligations: Educators will abide by government laws and regulations at all times and will be obligated to report violations of these laws to relevant authorities.

Professional conduct includes, for example:

  • Maintaining honesty and integrity while conducting work.
  • Being aware of, understanding and adhering to the provisions of legislation, laws and policies relevant to their work.

Prohibited unprofessional conduct includes, for example:

  • Falsifying or misrepresenting professional qualifications or employment history.
  • Wilfully disobeying or disregarding any applicable laws.

Standard 9 – Alcohol, drugs and tobacco: Educators will refrain from using, possessing, and being under the influence of alcohol and illegal drugs, and will not smoke in the workplace.

Professional conduct includes, for example:

  • Abiding by government laws with respect to the substances stated above at all times.
  • Refraining from providing alcohol or other drugs to students, or from encouraging students to consume them, or from disregarding students’ use.
  • School nurses supervising the administration of prescribed medications to students, and ensuring compliance with the Council’s guidelines.

Prohibited unprofessional conduct includes, for example:

  • Consuming or being intoxicated by alcohol or other drugs while performing duties.
  • Smoking in School buildings and/or on the Council’s premises.
  • Encouraging students to use alcohol, tobacco or unauthorised drugs at any time.

Standard 10 – Use of resources: Educators will use property and resources provided for their work efficiently and only for official/work-related purposes.

Professional conduct includes, for example:

  • Complying with the Council’s Information Security Policy relating to acceptable use of technology.
  • Optimal usage of Council and School resources for work purposes to the extent necessary to carry out the assigned work.
  • Maintaining assets and possessions entrusted to them (because of their work), and ensuring they are used wisely and responsibly.

Prohibited unprofessional conduct includes, for example:

  • Taking advantage of public or work-related resources for personal benefit (such as checking personal email) or for achieving personal gains or goals.
  • Spending the Council’s or the School’s financial resources in a reckless or wasteful manner.

Standard 11 – Conflicts of interest: Educators will avoid any situation that represents or may be perceived to represent a conflict of interest in carrying out their professional responsibilities and tasks.

Professional conduct includes, for example:

  • Carrying out all responsibilities and taking all decisions in an objective and impartial manner.
  • Maintaining integrity and not accepting any bribes (gratuity), gifts, money or services that might impair or influence professional decisions.
  • Refraining from using their position for personal gains.
  • Reporting a potential conflict of interest to supervisors, and recusing themselves from situations giving rise to perceived conflict of interest.

Prohibited unprofessional conduct includes, for example:

  • Involvement in any decisions in which family or friends may benefit.
  • Accepting gifts from suppliers or local community members or gifts that may be given in an attempt to influence official work, other than those of nominal value (in most cases, a gift valued at over AED 100 will not be considered to be of nominal value).
  • Using School time to conduct non-School business.

Standard 12 – Sensitive issues: Educators will not make remarks regarding sensitive issues that could cause anger or discomfort among students, colleagues or the community.

Professional conduct includes, for example:

  • Ensuring that classroom discussions are focused on the subject being taught.
  • Being careful when making comments (particularly in relation to potentially controversial matters, such as religion or politics).
  • Preventing students from raising potentially controversial matters for group discussions.

Prohibited unprofessional conduct includes, for example:

  • Engaging in conversation with students about sensitive issues – such as religion and politics – that do not serve any clear educational purpose and are not related to the School’s approved curriculum.

In cases such Professional Code of Ethics is violated, the School will impose appropriate sanctions in accordance to the Council’s regulations, policies and requirements. The sanctions imposed depend on the severity of the violation and the relevant staff’s behavioural history.

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MBAT is designed around communities. Communities work with meetings and in this post I am going to describe how meetings work in general terms. It is rather different for little kids than for older ones. Before they are nine-years-old, kids benefit from the firm guidance of adults who know what they are doing. Their meetings are run by their teachers. When the school is established this guidance could also be given by senior students.

So here I guess I am talking about Sama more than Hadiqa. Sama is the 10-13 part of the school. You might think that even here it is easier to just have the teacher making all the decisions. Adults are, after all, responsible for teaching and learning; why shouldn’t they be responsible for everything else as well? This is the way most schools work and it has the benefit of clarity.

Meetings are a part of every culture around the world

Our aim, however, is to educate children in responsibility and self-government. We can’t do that very well if we take away from them the responsibility for making decisions they are perfectly capable of making for themselves. They won’t learn how to do things for themselves unless they have that opportunity. What are these things? Well, they fall into a categories:

  • organizing events and parties
  • sorting out problems among people
  • deciding on rules for the administration of their space
  • nominating groups or committees for special jobs

As children get used to negotiating their lives in this way, the adults can step further back. They are capable of a lot more than they are generally given credit for in conventional schools. It is not always easy. But who said learning has to be easy?

In this short post I describe how to set up a meeting that works.

Meetings are a part of cultures all around the world

Set it up

  1. Who is going to be involved in your meeting and why?  Decide on who is going to be included BEFORE you call the first meeting.
  2. Prepare your case before calling the first meeting.  Someone has to lead the meeting to the point where it makes its first decisions or you will just wobble along in confusion.  Since you are reading this, it looks like that’s going to be you.
  3. Ensure that the meeting decides on its own rules BEFORE it starts talking about anything else.

Decide on the Rules

  • We need a chairman.  Elect a chairman.  The chairman cannot comment on meeting cases without standing down as chairman.  The chairman’s role is to take hands, take proposals, call for order and guide the discussion.
  • We need a secretary.  Elect a secretary.  The secretary controls the Meeting book.  This is a record of the discussion, the proposals and the voting in the meeting.  The secretary needs to be able to make these notes quickly and succinctly.
  • Set periods of office for chairman and secretary.  At Summerhill, it is normally one week.  I prefer this to other schools where being chairman is a “position of distinction” that a student can hold for a whole term or year.
Meetings are part of cultures around the world

Agree on procedure

Agree on procedures.  Here are some Summerhill ideas, but once you have a chairman and secretary, you can discuss your own procedures in your own meeting.

  • If you want to bring a case to the meeting you have to see the secretary BEFORE the meeting.
  • When your case is called you must state the matter simply and succinctly.
  • The chairman can limit the discussion of a case if she feels that it is getting repetitive.
  • You have to ask the chairman to leave.
  • You have to raise your hand to speak.
  • There is no cross-talking.  This means that you are not allowed to respond to someone else’s point without raising your hand again.
  • The chairman can call for proposals, which are voted on by the whole community.  Everyone has an equal vote.
  • Voting is by simple majority vote.
  • You can appeal a case that goes against you, but that does not mean you do not have to abide by the decision taken in the meeting.
  • The meeting can elect committees to deal with frequently-recurring business.  The election does not have to take place in the Meeting.
  • Have a law book.  This is where you record the laws or rules decided by your community.  It does not have to be a fancy book.  It has to be displayed in a public place.

I said at the start that you should decide who is going to be invited to the meeting.  This is just my opinion and you are welcome to disagree.  A community meeting, for example, does not include parents, visitors or day-staff except as visitors: they have to be voted in.  You can argue that it should be otherwise but you would end up with a different school.

Meetings are a part of cultures around the world

I think the points in my list are techniques that make sense, but the initial decision on who is going to be included in the meeting is an emotional issue.  Many projects can be capsized by being overly inclusive.  There are very good reasons why the postman, the local doctor and Auntie Flo’s brother who visits every summer should not be included in democratic decision-making in my village, for example.

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Let’s go over this again. The reason for setting up meetings is that you can’t have a well-functioning community without them. As children get older, adults step back and allow them to take control of those meetings. Older students gain confidence and competence in expressing themselves, considering opinions and deciding on issues that are of importance to them.

Meetings have defined objectives and structures. They are not formless discussion groups. When meetings are poorly-designed they end up in chaos and dissatisfaction. However, we are intelligent, social animals and we have an in-built ability to make meetings work. Furthermore, as children at MBAT grow up learning the difference between freedom and license, they develop a sensitivity to living in a community that will last them for the rest of their lives.

Who wouldn’t want that?