If you visit the independent Park School on the Dartington estate, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2016, you’ll find a strong, vibrant learning community offering holistic child-centred education. Founded on the values of democracy, trust and respect that are central to the Human Scale Educationmovement, it is inspired by the former Dartington Hall School and has strong links with Sands School in Ashburton.
‘I believe that building self-esteem and confidence is as important as academic education. Children are listened to and encouraged to develop and express their own opinions,’ says Amanda Bellamy, Teacher in Charge at Park School. Once a week all the older children come together for a school meeting to discuss how the school feels and what they want to improve or celebrate. ‘My job is to make sure the teachers don’t talk too much (!), and to help everyone listen to each other. It is one of the times that children learn to voice their opinions. Children are very wise and should never be underestimated.’
Amanda previously taught at state schools but found it increasingly tricky after the ‘reality check’ of her own children being born. She says it was when she realised exactly how special children are, and that some children are taught but not talked to all day that she wanted something in education to be different. ‘There are those children who are a bit shy and don’t have many friends in a class of 30. I really noticed and it upset me that I was not able to meet their human needs to hold relationships. I thought this was a higher, or at least equal, need than their learning academics.
‘I think a lot of teachers in state schools agree with me that a huge amount of pressure is put on children. This is because the government puts pressure on senior management, who often pass it on to teachers, but the most pressure then falls on children, with impact on their wellbeing. ‘At Park we see learning as holistic: we try and look at children as unique whole people, not vessels that you fill.’
While the school follows the basics of the national curriculum through thematic learning and some single subject lessons, ‘we also have a third way to help them learn,’ says Amanda. ‘Their own learning time is valued equally to other types of learning. In state schools, play time is not usually seen as a learning focus. We have extended playtime, as play is children’s work.’
Rather than encouraging a form of competition with a reward system, where by default someone has to be at the bottom of the pile, Amanda says, the school helps the child to notice how they feel, to tap into their internal determination. Similarly, rather than punishment there is consequence, as Amanda says: ‘When a child breaks something, they help fix it – a more healthy way of living because you learn what your actions have done. You’re much more likely not to do it again if you understand it clearly.’
It’s not always rosy in the garden. Park is a community school where all the parents, teachers and children know each other well. ‘When a community is close, there are challenges with that. You might have some conflicts, because we’re all human; but when handled well in a mindful way, these are actually positive for sustaining good relationships.’
‘All teachers are trained in ‘non-violent communication’ so we help children to mediate, help them to understand how to deal with conflict. Everyone makes mistakes: they are where you learn. In fact, that’s exactly when you are usually learning the most.’
Children from Park School join Bidwell Brook School, Dartington CofE Primary School, South Devon Steiner School and other Dartington parish each year to sing Christmas carols in the Great Hall. In 2016 mistress of ceremonies at the concert, Lucinda Guy of Soundart Radio, included an invocation to fellow Dartington College of Arts (DCA) alumni to return to the estate, many of whom used to work on drama and music projects with Park School children until 2010.
Amanda says: ‘With Rhodri Samuel’s appointment to the Trust there seems to be more communication and openness which feels very positive’ and ‘the school ‘recently linked up with the Trust on the new play park. Estate-based natural play specialists Earthwrights came and worked outside with the children, which was lovely.’