Why I Started a Small School, by Rosalyn Spencer

Dan’s personality had begun to change after he’d started school. He had often been tired and down-hearted when I’d collected him. I had to take into account that he not only had to deal with the new demands of full-time schooling but also had to adjust to a new baby in the home and the fact that he was no longer an only child. We gave him as much love and reassurance as we could when he came home from school, and he enjoyed helping with the new baby. Although I was breast-feeding Nicki, I would supplement this with a bottle so that Dan could, if he wanted to, hold her on his knee and feed her. Under the circumstances I think we did the best we could so that Dan didn’t feel pushed out.

Time progressed and Dan didn’t seem any happier. Over the next few years any comments I made to the school about possible dyslexia were quickly dismissed, and generally sharing our concerns with his teachers often left me feeling very frustrated.

On one occasion I suggested to the school that Dan might find it easier to work using the computer rather than writing by hand, which he found so very difficult. The teacher didn’t like this idea, even though I believe to this day that it could have helped him.

Dan loved anything mathematical and there had been a time when Dan said the only thing he really liked at school was numeracy. He was devastated when he reached the stage when his number work started to take a written-sentence format. He just couldn’t deal with the problems presented in this way.

At an open evening at the school I explained to the teacher that Dan was having great difficulty understanding the written maths questions. She replied that Dan simply had to ask her to read the question for him. I know that she was trying to be helpful and meant well, but Dan could work out the answers so fast once he knew the question that he would be ready for the next question to be read out almost immediately. Having thirty children in the class plying for her attention would mean that she couldn’t meet Dan’s needs in this respect, so Dan felt like a failure in the only subject he thought he was good at.

One weekend we were all staying as a family at our caravan at Filey. Dan was about seven at the time. On the Sunday afternoon we were playing on the beach when I noticed that something was bothering Dan. It turned out he was worrying about the spelling test at school the following day. In an effort to help him, I made a game of writing the words he needed to learn for the test using a stick to form the letters in the sand. Eventually Dan could write the words in the sand on his own, and seemed more relaxed and confident. We were then able to get on with the more enjoyable task of building sandcastles. Back at our caravan a short while later, however, Dan couldn’t remember any of the spellings.

Previously, as a co-opted governor at Dan’s school, I had arranged to spend a morning looking around the whole school with a view to reporting back at the next governors’ meeting. I spent some time in the combined Reception and Year One class where Dan was at the time. Also in the class were a number of children who I knew very well because they had attended my own nursery and I had been directly involved in teaching them.

My heart started aching for one particular ex-pupil of mine that morning as she spent over an hour trying to copy a sentence from the blackboard into her book. Jenny was an August baby and she had only just had her fourth birthday the week before she started school, whereas Dan was nearly five when he started. That one-year age span is absolutely tremendous when you are only four years old. In the nursery, Jenny had loved painting and craft activities, and socialising with other children in the home corner. She had loved books, and was able to read some simple words on her own.

She had started to develop her writing skills nicely before she left the nursery, and was able to write her name independently as well as copying some simple words like ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’ to accompany her pictures.

The morning of my visit to school, however, Jenny seemed a completely different child. She was sitting at her table looking utterly hopeless as she struggled to copy the string of meaningless letter shapes forming a sentence into her work book.

She had not finished the task by playtime, so was asked to complete it after play. She looked desperately unhappy because she was aware that most of the other children had completed the task long ago and had moved on to more interesting practical activities. It was as though she were being punished for being younger than the other children. In my opinion, she was not yet ready for such a task even though she was a very bright child.

Just like my son, I could see that Jenny was experiencing the pain of failure. I need to add that the teacher was doing the best she could under the circumstances. I was aware that she had originally been trained to teach older primary children but was now teaching a mixed-age group of Reception and Year One children aged four to six. As far as I was aware she hadn’t much experience of early years teaching but she carried the reputation of being an excellent teacher. That day, she had set the children the initial task of writing up the news for the day, and once they had finished this task they could move on to some really exciting and stimulating activities. I loved the way she’d wrapped up parcels of different sizes and shapes to make her post-office activity more interesting for the children. She’d incorporated numeracy and literacy activities in a fun way. It was just unfortunate that amongst all the exciting and fun activities going on, which I couldn’t fault, she hadn’t noticed poor Jenny struggling. I really don’t think the teacher had taken into account that if Jenny had been born just a week later, she’d still be in a nursery class where she wouldn’t have had to spend over an hour grappling with an almost impossible task – she’d be having fun and learning through play.

One week when Dan had been off school with chickenpox, I took time off from teaching in the nursery to be with him. I really enjoyed sitting down with him and helping him with his schoolwork. Dan was incredibly responsive to my input. It really was so much easier than trying to offer him help at the end of the school day when he was tired and irritable.

Having had such positive learning experiences with Dan at home during his illness, I wondered if I would be allowed to withdraw Dan from school one afternoon a week in order to carry out that valuable one-to-one time with him again. I already tried to keep Tuesday and Thursday afternoons free, and left somebody else in charge of the nursery, so that I could give Nicki some quality time (the way I had done with Dan). The school promptly said no to my suggestion: under no circumstances could they allow me to educate Dan off site during school time. It was actually perfectly legal for this to happen and for the school to use a specific symbol in the school register to indicate the child was being educated off site. It would not have affected the school’s funding in any way at all. Unfortunately though, not many schools would do this even though it would have been of benefit to the child. Dan’s headteacher suggested that as an alternative I could go into school for an afternoon each week, but would have to work with a group of children, not just Dan. I said that I’d be more than happy to do this. Unfortunately this never happened; after thinking about it, the school recalled that they had a policy of not letting parents work with their own children in school. They said that I could go into school and work with a group of other children though!

A few weeks later when I was taking Dan and Nicki swimming, Dan pointed to a lady in the car park and said, ‘That’s the lady that does special work with me at school!’

‘Oh, that’s nice,’ I replied, concealing my concern that the school had not informed me of this. ‘What do you do when you see her?’

‘We play some spelling games and things,’ said Dan. ‘Do you enjoy that?’ I asked him.

‘Yes, it’s all right, but I always have to miss apparatus work though!’ he replied with disappointment in his voice.

Dan was a clumsy child who struggled to participate in school sports days and never wanted to play football. I was concerned that he was missing a lesson he really enjoyed, one that might help him to improve the coordination skills he lacked.

I arranged another meeting at the school and explained how appreciative I was of Dan receiving special help but that I was concerned about him missing a lesson that he not only really enjoyed, but could help him with something else he found difficult.  The headteacher responded with an exasperated, ‘Well, what DO you want, Mrs Spencer!’ I was quite certain I hadn’t been confrontational in my manner, but I went away feeling like an awkward and fussy parent. Instead of trying to work out what was best for Dan, they had become automatically defensive. In the past, I had felt I had enjoyed a very good relationship with the school, but now I felt very uncomfortable, and I believed that continuing to discuss Dan’s problems with them might make things worse.

I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back I think that in addition to being dyslexic, Dan could also have been dyspraxic. Dyspraxia is a condition that affects physical coordination skills. This could explain why Dan appeared clumsy at times and found some sports activities so difficult.

As time passed, I wasn’t just concerned about Dan but other children who had attended my nursery too. While I was delighted that some parents were able to give me very positive feedback, saying that the nursery had prepared their child well for school and they had settled in happily and were making good progress, I was concerned about the number of parents whose children were experiencing problems. Some children who were settled and happy while attending the nursery, perhaps on a part-time basis, were now showing sign of stress at having to attend school full time. Some of the children had become so anxious that they had started to wet their beds, whereas they had been dry at night before starting school. Other children didn’t want to go to school for a variety of reasons and were encountering different problems. It seemed, then, that Dan wasn’t the only child to lose his sparkle upon starting school.

Interestingly, some of the parents had very similar stories to my own, in that suggestions had been made about their parenting ability when they had sought further support for their child in school.

By now Dan’s sister, Nicki, was four years old and had just missed going to school with all her friends from the nursery because she’d been born twelve days too late. Although Jenny, whom I’d observed years before in Dan’s class, had been the youngest in her class and hadn’t been ready for some of the activities she had been asked to tackle, Nicki would probably be the oldest child in her year group. This fact, combined with the knowledge that Nicki was already an avid reader and writer, gave me other concerns …

Some of the parents whose children had attended the nursery had relayed stories about their very able children being held back in Reception class and having to wait for the other children to ‘catch up’. Springing immediately to mind are three children who were all confident early readers when they left the nursery but who all had difficulty in Reception. One was made to start again at Book One, a process he found so humiliating and degrading that it turned him off books even though he’d been a very enthusiastic reader up to that point. Another boy was not allowed to take a reading book home at all for his entire first year at school. He too found this a demoralising experience. Another very able child had her reading restricted, resulting in her too losing her enthusiasm for books.

Nicki was the opposite of Dan when it came to reading and writing. I would have had no worries about her going to school twelve months earlier, when all her friends started – she was ready. If she’d been born two weeks sooner, I feel that she would have been with the appropriate age group for her ability and level of maturity. But now didn’t seem to be the right time for her to start with a typical Reception group, and I feared that school would dampen her enthusiasm for learning too.

So like lots of other parents, I now had anxieties about both of my children and was wondering how the education system could possibly meet their very individual needs. On top of this, I had concerns about some of the children who had left the nursery and were now struggling due to learning difficulties, able children being held back, or coping with other difficulties such as bullying.

In September 1992, when Dan was two months away from his ninth birthday and Nicki had just had her fourth birthday, I was still wondering how I could help them both when I received a newsletter from Human Scale Education (HSE). I didn’t know very much about the organisation at the time but think I may have expressed an interest in their philosophy while visiting a stand at the Education Show at the NEC in Birmingham the previous year. The headlines of the newsletter read: THE WHITE PAPER – Hope for small schools at last? The article by Satish Kumar referred to the government white paper Choice and Diversity published in July 1992. It suggested that Britain could see the development of more diverse schools that would offer parents much more variety and choice. I read the following paragraph over and over again:

If these are not empty promises, we may see the emergence of Danish-style schools, founded by parents. New small schools, as well as Muslim and Christian schools may achieve the same status as grant-maintained schools. If so, and this is a big ‘if’, then all the effort put into producing this White Paper may be worthwhile.

This newsletter prompted me to reread an earlier HSE Newsletter which showed the organisation’s patrons on the front page. I found myself looking at photographs of the patrons and immediately recognised the familiar and friendly face of Anita Roddick of the highly successful Body Shop chain. She had been a teacher but had become disillusioned and had felt she could help more people through producing fair-trade products in an environmentally caring way. Other patrons included Sir Yehudi Menuhin, the incredibly gifted musician who as a child had been educated at home; Jonathan Porritt, a public figure associated with environmental issues (and a good friend of Prince Charles); Lord Young of Dartington, the brainchild behind the Open University; Professor Tim Brighouse, and Professor Richard Pring. The overall message given by the patrons in the newsletter was that education in Britain was in crisis. The then Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Clark, was arguing that progressive education had failed our children, and was talking about schools getting back to basics. The aforementioned patrons feared the consequences of Kenneth Clark’s policies and wanted to see education become more child-centred. Jonathan Porritt stated:

“The education system today is largely out of touch with the real world, not just in terms of curriculum content but of practice and process. Human Scale Education is an important part of redressing that balance.”

Inspired by everything I had read, I picked up the phone and rang HSE. It was a phone call that was to change not only my own life but Dan’s, Nicki’s and others’ too…

This article constitutes chapter 6, “Growing Concerns (1988-1992)” from Rosalyn Spenser’s book, ‘Why I Started a Small School; A Nurturing Human Scale Approach to Education and Parenting.’ You can buy the e-book through Amazon. Hard copies can be ordered from Rosalyn’s website.

Further Reading

15 Small Schools – This 1999 report, written by Rosalyn Spencer, details findings from visits to 15 small schools associated with Human Scale Education:

“These schools are all different, reflecting the priorities of their founders. But there are features common to all of them–parental involvement, democratic processes, environmentally sustainable values, spiritual values, links with the local community, an emphasis in co-operation rather than competition, and mixed age learning. The characteristic that links them all is smallness, and it is their small size that makes possible the close relationships fundamental to good learning.

By good learning, the schools mean learning in a holistic sense, encompassing the development of the creative, emotional, physical, moral, and intellectual potential of each person. Contact information, grade levels and number of students taught, and a brief history are given for each school. Educational philosophy, school-community relationships, educational practices, and grading systems are described, as well as the extent to which the national curriculum and SATs are used. Environmental education and activities, service learning, experiential activities, and exposure to the world of work are extensive. The governing structure of the school, the extent of student participation in decision making, and financing arrangements are described. Advantages of being small and specific problems encountered are also discussed.”