Education Provider Voice 4

Kezia Cantwell-Wright – Founder of a Self-Directed, Democratic School

Kezia Cantwell-Wright founded East Kent Sudbury School in 2019.  It is a self-directed, democratic learning community for students aged 5-18 years, inspired by the US Sudbury Valley School.

She initially set it up because the progressive choices available for her own children were so limited. She felt frustrated that self-directed education wasn’t recognised as a valid educational approach in the UK and hopes that her own setting, East Kent Sudbury School, will help to change that.

What are the main principals of the educational approach at your school?

Students self-direct their education, choosing what to learn when, how and with whom, supported by caring staff members and their peers, whilst being a part of a democratic community.  

Being democratic, all students and staff together form the community which is responsible for making all decisions. Each member of the community has an equal voice regardless of age or any other factor.

Why did you decide to follow the Sudbury model?

I knew I wanted a school that gave students complete freedom to self-direct their learning and have a genuine say in all matters regarding the running of the school. Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, was founded in 1968 and is still running and thriving today and was a huge inspiration to me and all of the other founding members.  

Sudbury Valley School has catalogued the organisation and philosophy of their school through many books, handbooks and other media, from which many other schools have been founded. Rather than re-invent a new model from scratch, it made sense to base our project on the Sudbury model, whilst ensuring we meet our local regulatory requirements.

[In this film, brought to us by East Kent Sudbury School and Alpine Valley School, Kezia Cantwell-Wright shares her insights from day-to-day life at her school.]

Why are you interested in progressive education?

Who is education for? It is to create the perfect workers for society or is to equip children to live fulfilling lives? I don’t think that our current system is working well for either aim. As the nature of work changes, we now need people that think critically and creatively, not just obediently. 

But it is only when you put the individual child’s needs as the starting point for determining their education that you really equip them to flourish, and that is what I believe the purpose of education should be.

What are the main challenges of our current school system?

  • As we’ve moved out of the industrial age into the information age, repetitive tasks are increasingly handled by computers and machines, and the roles left for the human workforce increasingly involve creative and critical thinking skills computers lack. Our current school system was designed to produce obedient factory workers for the Victorian workforce, we don’t need people like that anymore. Today you are more likely than ever to change careers, work for yourself and have to learn new skills rapidly on the job. Employers aren’t looking for 9 A’s but for independent, creative, adaptable thinkers.
  • The level of pressure and lack of freedom for children today is creating a mental health crisis. It’s not confined to within schools, children have less freedom outside of school than they used to as well. No longer do we see kids playing in the streets.  Any psychologist will tell you that autonomy is essential for mental health – we need to feel a level of ownership over our own lives, somethings sorely lacking for children today as every minute of their day is timetabled and they have to ask permission for everything.
  • The sheer numbers of students per school and per class makes a teacher’s job to give an individualised education almost impossible. Teachers that come into the profession to inspire and make a difference are reduced to crowd control agents.
  • Funding has been repeatedly stripped from schools over the period of austerity politics with SEN and mental health provision particularly hard hit. 

What are state schools doing well?

Getting the most academic students the results they want and places at university.

If you could make changes to the state education system, what would be your top priorities?

  • More play-based learning for younger years – up to 7 or 8 at least – with responsive teaching rather than curriculum led teaching.
  • Less focus on academics and more balanced, broader curriculum.
  • Removing testing entirely, except for final exams right at the end of schooling – and maybe even those as well.
  • Student voice represented in schools, especially secondaries.
  • More student choice over what they learn, such as more options or free periods for own project work.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Think about how you learn as an adult – what passions you have followed, what skills you’ve picked up. How did you do it? Think about what you learnt as a child, the most meaningful long-lasting experiences – were they at school in the classroom or somewhere else? 

Chances are, if you’re like me, most of what you have learnt won’t have been in a classroom but elsewhere. When we connect with what we know about learning, the ridiculousness of the conventional school system is obvious.

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Listen to the Lockdown Learning Podcast series brought to us East Kent Sudbury School and Alpine Valley School