A Free School for Canterbury…

A school needs to be a place for all children, not based on the idea that they’re all the same, but that they’re all different.

Loris Malaguzzi, Founder of the Reggio Emilia approach

Through the wonders of Facebook (love-hate though my relationship is), and finding local mummies who share similar passions when it comes to parenting, I have found myself all of sudden involved in the application to establish Free School for Canterbury. This is very, very exciting…if you happen to be me, or a parent living locally!

Free Schools are all-ability (non-selective) state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.

The right school can transform a child’s life and help them achieve things they may never have imagined. Through the Free Schools programme it is now much easier for talented and committed teachers, charities, parents and education experts to open schools to address real demand within an area.

Dept. for Education.

The concept is based on similar schools found in Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and the US, where they are known as Charter Schools.

Here’s the exciting part, as far as I’m concerned;  Our hope is to establish a primary years Free School based on the Reggio Emilia Approach.  This will be amazing for all the families who will ultimately become involved, but I can see how this will be especially great for my little family given Boy 1’s sensitivities and potential for learning within the right environment.

The Reggio Emilia approach to learning was developed by Loris Malaguzzi in a northern Italian city of the same name.  The first Reggio Emilia school was co-created by parents in the community and was founded on the principles of community, responsibility, and respect through a supportive and enriching environment.  Schools integrating a Reggio approach still follow these same basic principles. At its core, the Reggio Emilia method offers young people more power than most. Children are powerful people, just like adults, born with the desire and ability to construct their own knowledge base as they grow. Respect is key; children have the right to interact, communicate, make decisions, follow their own path and experience interest-led learning.  This is precisely how I would homeschool Boy 1, but its possibly better as it would additionally  offer him a greater degree of structure and opportunity to socialise, whilst also providing him with a ‘private life’ he may lack being schooled at home.

Reggio2Although the Reggio approach shares some features and values of Steiner-Waldorf, Montessori and democratic education methods, it’s not quite the same because Reggio doesn’t have a set philosophy or belief system in place. The system is seen as ever-changing, not static or formal. The Reggio approach is already popular within American preschools and kindergartens but is now slowly being extended to cover the Elementary (Primary) years.  And this is how we would like to see the Canterbury Free School develop.  An inspirational American example of a Reggio inspired primary school is the Opal School in Portland, Oregan, which is attached to the City’s Children’s Museum.

Reggio Emilia is extremely focused on the connecting relationships between children, teachers, parents, school and home.  Despite their best intentions, I know that this is missing from Boy 1’s current school – that’s my experience to date, anyway.  There is still a ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude which I’m uncomfortable with, quite frankly.   By establishing a Reggio inspired school, we would be attempting to create an environment in which everyone interacts and works together. An exchange of ideas between parents, teachers and children is essential to this method.  Parents would be actively encouraged to attend meetings, volunteer and more.   I don’t want to run them down too much but in all honesty, I’ve had to go out of my way to set up meetings about Boy 1’s learning, I’ve felt awkward when doing so, and the outcomes have been less than satisfactory to me.  I’ve even completed a CRB check to volunteer in the school and yet they’ve not actually bothered to ask for me to come in and help!  Its pretty demoralising that I’m willing to get fully involved in my son’s education but it doesn’t seem as though its welcomed.

Reggio5

Reggio students are allowed to follow their own interests, rather than a pre-set curriculum (I liken this to the unschooling approach I would adopt if we do decide to homeschool Boy 1)  However, this is not “willy-nilly” learning. There’s a high amount of adult involvement in order to support and help direct students. There’s a great example on the Canterbury Free School website of how this works in practice…

Students must feel safe and free and be given ample opportunities to express themselves – a specific and deliberate environment which acts as“the third teacher.”  Often, there is aesthetic beauty within a Reggio school.  There’s usually a central area where kids may gather to actively interact, a kitchen and various places to rest and relax. Almost all Reggio classrooms include a significant art studio, or “Atelier” which is packed with hands on art materials such as clay, paints and writing implements along with creative materials like pebbles, dried orange peel, driftwood, tangles of wire and tin cans. Not only can children use these materials to represent concepts that they are learning, but this supports an important integration of graphic arts as tools for cognitive, linguistic, and social development – which is consistent with Dr. Howard Gardner’s notion of schooling for multiple intelligences.Reggio3

Teachers play an important, yet complex role within the Reggio approach. Teachers often work in partnership with at least one other teacher, collaborating, sharing information and mentoring each other and their peers. Teachers must be willing to learn alongside students and act as a touchstone for various child interests. Teachers document and record what children are doing, helping them trace and revisit their personal learning path. This approach is called, “Making learning visible,” and may include a variety of documentation methods. Teachers must carefully listen and observe children’s work and the growth of the classroom community.

No single educational method is perfect but this one sounds, in theory, to be a pretty good fit for most children to thrive, and certainly I can see it suiting Boy 1 down to the ground.  If our application goes ahead and is successful, the aim would be to establish the school in readiness for September 2015 – just in time for Boy 2’s reception year!  We need to generate interest and then prove demand for such a school.  A child-centered approach to learning, that builds on the child’s and teacher’s strengths, rather than their weaknesses, that will set a maximum class size at 20 pupils, and state-funded to boot.  What’s not to love?

If you’re a local parent and are keen to get involved or express an interest in a Reggio inspired Free School for Canterbury, please get in touch via the Canterbury Free School blog, or join in the discussion on our Facebook page.

(Information about the Reggio Emilia Approach to education used in this post was taken from an article featured on Inhabitots, with thanks x) 

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