Teach each term as if it is your last?
What would you do if, as a teacher, your school was closing next July? If all the students were to be sent to other schools and all of the staff to take early retirement or go off to teach elsewhere. What kinds of challenges, and what kinds of freedom would this bring?
In June, RSA began project a with Service Children’s Education, the agency responsible for the children of Ministry of Defence personnel, service and civilian, who are based overseas. SCE currently provides education for over 10,000 pupils in 38 schools in nine countries.
This week, two of the RSA education team went to Rheindahlen near Dusseldorf to develop plans with two schools whose buildings, staff, student body, community and locality will all be a thing of the past this time next year. For Windsor Secondary School and Ark Primary School there are no impending OFSTED inspections, no results targets for next year, no new curriculum to be embedded, no incoming Reception children or year 6s. The only thing that matters is the experience of the current students while they are with the school, and how well they can be equipped for their next move – wherever that may be.
The first thing that is striking about visiting Windsor Secondary school was the apparent absence of students. The school – the size of an ordinary English secondary school in its heyday, anticipates that it will contain approximately 125 students by the time the school closes next July. Class sizes, especially further up the age range, are already tiny. On a tour of the arts facilities we encountered a drama class of six year 7 pupils and a GCSE music lesson with just one student in it. “What a gift!” was the typically positive response from Joy Harris, the arts advisor for Service Children’s Education. “I wish I was in your class with these fabulously creative teachers, and so much space to move around”.
In fact everyone we met – from the headteachers to the colonel in charge of closing the base – seemed determined that the closure of the schools – and the garrison – was to be celebrated. In fact, such was the evident desire to continue giving the students a great experience of school, that one senior leader felt it necessary to mention that of course ‘being realistic’ the base was closing, and so certain aspects of school life would need to be drawn to a close. Only seven rooms around the school have been closed so far, in a conscious effort not to leave whole swathes of the buildings derelict while the students are still attending.
The Shakespeare through Opening Minds project we are planning with Windsor School, with a focus on the competences that might assist students in their transitions between schools and countries, is exciting. But Windsor School, its inspiring head, and arts advisor Joy, have been determined for some time that students will receive a creative education in which they are inculcated into what headteacher Brian Davies calls ‘the art of the possible’. So despite the endless rain which accompanied our visit, the semi-abandoned atmosphere of the garrison, the empty corridors and enormous trees that permeate the site as a reminder of the forest to which it will return when the British have gone, the great efforts to inject a sense of celebration and hope into the remaining months at this very unique school are proving very effective – it’s a garrison that’s half full, not half empty.
The situation of their pupils is unique and challenging in that they are facing much uncertainty and disruption, but the Windsor staff are focused on turning this into a positive experience for their pupils, one where they will gain valuable real-life skills, such as resilience, adaptability and reflection. Most of these children are used to changing schools and homes frequently, or at least seeing their friends move, and will therefore perhaps have acquired these skills to a greater extent than their peers in England. We hope that our projects will help staff to make the acquisition of these skills explicit to the pupils and so make a potentially difficult experience something that they can regard as a rare and positive opportunity.
The Ark Primary School with whom we are also working is by contrast still very lively, crammed to the rafters with displays of artwork, sculpture, lively children, not to mention the resident guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens inhabiting the school farm. Sadly the longest-standing resident ‘Lady Yolk’ had passed away shortly before our arrival, but this seemed not to damage the spirits or enthusiasm of the students or the staff. The school is adamant that children should have ‘roots – however temporary’ in the garrison, and have created a school museum dedicated to the history of the garrison, its origins, including log books of students attending schools on the site from the 1970s. The aim will be to engage the students in creating an installation or sculpture that represents their feelings towards the school closure and so allows them to take some ownership of the process whilst knowing that they will be leaving a legacy for themselves and the community to visit in the future. We will update on this project shortly.
So what would you do if, as a teacher, your school was closing next July? Perhaps you would try to ensure your students were equipped with the confidence and self-awareness to make their next steps. Perhaps you would bring in whatever expertise in the arts or other areas you could lay your hands on to ensure that students had the richest possible experience of school while you were still able to influence it. Perhaps you would try to give students a sense of the history and identity of the location of their school and their home, before they are asked to move on. Are these schools really freer to do more than they would be if they weren’t closing?