By David Gribble
Book of the week in the Times Educational Supplement
Summerhill and Sands School are contrasted with traditional schools in corresponding extracts from their prospectuses and the words of their pupils and in a number of contrasting photographs.
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Book of the week in the Times Educational Supplement, March 17 2001
Rather than posting our own review of a book we have published ourselves, we have produced a composite review from other publications.
If you're a progressive, then the traditionalists are hard-faced Gradgrinds, intent on forcing children to jump through meaningless pedagogic hoops. If you're a traditionalist, progressives are dangerously naïve softies, unforgivably allowing children to emerge from school ill-equipped to deal with the rigours of adult life.
In fact, it's rarely that clear-cut. After all, every school, every teacher, agrees on what they're trying to do. As David Gribble writes in his introduction: "It must not be forgotten that even the strictest of authoritarian schools and even the most informal of free schools have this one fundamental aim in common: to do the best they can for the children who attend them." That's a big area of agreement. The differences, though, are clearly there, and Gribble allows them to speak for themselves. To this end, he takes two sets of evidence – excerpts from "official documents" (prospectuses, school websites and other school-level sources), and a selection of quotations from pupils – which he divides into "traditional" and "progressive" material. On each double-page spread in the book, the traditional quotes are on the left and the progressive on the right, so you can read straight across to make comparisons under themed headings. For example, under "Start of the Day" we read, on the left, about the routine for a traditionally organised comprehensive, which includes: "The first thing you do when you get inside is to go to your tutor room and wait until the teacher arrives and does the register." Over on the right, we hear from a pupil in a progressive school: "The first thing I usually do is go to the kitchen and make myself a mug of coffee to take to my first lesson, but there are always rather too many people in there and sometimes it isn't worth the hassle."
(Gerald Haigh, in The Times Educational Supplement, 17.3.06)
As a teacher in a mainstream comprehensive school this book immediately grabbed my attention. How do we best educate our children to become the well-rounded, successful, active citizens that the government purports to want?
A wide range of issues is covered: from uniform, timetables and extra-curricular activities, to the students' attitudes to the teachers, the structure of the schools, and the impact of this on them as people. These combine to provide a mosaic overview of the contrasts between both types of school system. Some of the comments from the students are truly enlightening, especially around the subjects of sex and relationships.
(Izzy Bartley, in Bulb , No. 9)
Sometimes it's the simple things that make you stop and smile. In the progressive school, 'lessons start at 9.45. A few years ago they were supposed to start at 9.30, but everyone was always late.'
And in the traditional school? 'Lessons are supposed to start at 9.30, but they hardly ever do, because assembly goes on for too long, or the staff stay behind to discuss something.'
The book also contains photographs taken in both traditional and democratic schools. We are, perhaps, used to seeing children lined up in formal rows and gazing forward into the middle distance or doing some organised activity in a setting bounded by the walls of a schoolroom or the lines of a pitch or a court. The pictures from Sands and Summerhill, on the other hand, show young people as they choose to be, playing, relaxing, taking part in lessons from comfortable, though sometimes unconventional positions – sitting or lying on tables, or sprawling in the open air – and being themselves. This prompts the reflection – or should do – that the formality of traditional schools is supposed by those who run them to be inescapable and essential to the very fabric of a school, yet there are perfectly well-ordered and successful schools which utterly reject formality and all the defence mechanisms so dear to disciplinarians, without losing the willing compliance of their pupils. It is disturbing to think that so many people assume you cannot educate children without disabling their free will and their individuality.
If this book had no other purpose than to compare and contrast the traditional and democratic schools it would be worth the money, but it achieves more than this. By giving a voice to pupils as well as staff it compels the reader to make a series of value judgements about the education which both categories of school offer their students, and to arrive at an opinion about the vexed question of who, precisely, education is for. It does not seek to condemn traditional schools as one would condemn slavery or fascism, but simply to ask, again and again, whether good education can really happen where children are not happy, accept without question everything which happens to them and take no part in deciding what they learn, how they learn and what happens to them if they break the rules.
(Chris Shute, in The Journal of Personalised Education Now, Spring/Summer 2006)
Worlds Apart offers a tantalising tour into two deeply divided systems of education, united only by their commitment to the same principal objectives. Read it! It might even make you wish you could go back to school.