Beautiful Work, Beautifully Done

Some schools blow your mind. You go in and never want to come out again – that’s School 21 in Stratford, London. It’s a free school. Squirm. But like, it’s a FREE school. In that it hasn’t set itself up to protect the interests of the children of a few middle class people. Or to rescue a mediocre private school losing fee paying students. Or to conform to the norm with little imagination just for a bit of extra cash. This is a school that said “if we could start from scratch, what could we achieve”? And believe me, that’s rare.

I’d rather a free school had an ideology I disagreed with that no ideology at all. And what I saw here was a beautiful combination of rigour and creativity; of collective responsibility and individuality; of freedom and responsibility. I always say to teachers when I’m working with them “know why you do what you do.” Here, not only the teachers know why they do what they do but so do the pupils. On my way round, I’m encouraged to find chinks. To critique. And while I know there must be some, I couldn’t find them. What I found was wall after wall crammed full of truly beautiful work. What I heard were murmurs of purposeful talk. No silent corridors. But calm, happy chatter.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m tired of the false dichotomy of traditional versus progressive – it seems to me to only apply to those determined to reject any child centred approach at all. But here, there is absolute discipline. There is a commitment to excellence – to drafting, redrafting and being held accountable. There is a commitment to outcome and to knowledge. But everything is framed in a “so what?” attitude. What is the point of learning if no-one hears you? What is the point of academic success if you can’t interview successfully? What is the point of knowledge if you don’t use it to change the world? The mission statement says it all:-

“To create beautiful work that makes a difference to the world.”

Ron Berger’s Ethics of Excellence are not simply talked about in this school, but they are plastered all over the walls in the drafts and redrafts of children’s work – right through from reception. Displays matter.

School21 portraits

In the hall there is a zone labelled the “War and Conflict Zone” and inside it are two huge chess tables. Each piece of the chess game is a sculpture created by Year 9 pupils exploring the Cold War. In project based learning, they have examined the key players in the Cold War, researched them and created a chess piece to represent them. They have then argued, debated and reached a consensus about who was who. What was the King? A Pawn? A Castle? Why? Their understanding is extraordinarily sophisticated.


Head of project based learning, Joe Pardoe, explains that he feels our education system is predicated on an assumption that children don’t know until we tell them – a preemptive system. He gives several examples of where this has been shaken by his pupils – those who could already speak Russian for example who brought so much to a project on the Russian Revolution. Or one who brought in prior knowledge of Rousseau when exploring the French revolution.

“It’s so much better to start with what they already know and work from there,” he says. Simple and obvious. Why don’t we all do that? Well, you need three things – time, structure and purpose.

On the walls of the project based learning area are clear targets, deadlines and goals.

“Creativity operates within constraints,” he explains “deadlines, briefs, obstacles…” And so the children are given creative briefs, but within tight and demanding constraints.

The structure of how the sessions operate is made explicit. They start each 100 minute session with a 20 minute lecture – “there is a place for the didactic and for teacher talk.” On the board is written “University style lecture.” It’s clear that the routines of Higher Education are writ large in the minds of everyone involved. Underneath it says “University style seminars” and during the lesson, pupils will be withdrawn, 12 at a time, to work with a member of staff in response to a text they were given to read in advance. Flipped learning, you might call it. The rest of the time is given over to individual project work, with Joe circulating and offering feedback to pupils.

“In an average lesson, I probably get to spend 3 minutes one to one with each pupil – it’s not much” he shrugs. But it’s more than most teachers can say.

The results are evident in the levels of focus and commitment from the pupils – there’s a concentrated level of engagement across the group. It’s really impressive. How do they get this in older pupils? They develop it in the younger ones – it’s part of the DNA of the school.

We walk into a Year 7 Oracy class. Yes, an Oracy class. Led by the charismatic Mr Ahmet, the pupils enter the space in silence. They stand in neutral position, legs hip width apart, the atmosphere enhanced by calming music, a clear sense of “this is how we do things” in that everyone knows exactly where to be, how to be. Talking them through a list of visualisation exercises that I recognise as a drama teacher, he moves them into the key elements of the oracy curriculum – they have prepared poems for performance. They are led through tasks that take them into the physical, emotional, linguistic and cognitive realms of oracy. They know each one by heart. They are focused. It’s almost cultish, but performative and the calm, concentrated contentment of the group is palpable. When it’s time to move on, I want to cling to the door shouting “include me, include me”… The power of the collective is strong.

What struck me more than anything else when I walked around this school is that they were not offering a challenge to the knowledge-led, disciplined vision of more traditional schools, like Michaela. But saying that we too have the same aims. We too believe in discipline, in rigour, in knowledge. We too aspire for our pupils to succeed academically. But in addition, we want them to thrive, to become leaders in the world, to have the confidence to know that they are agentive, able to meet challenge, solve problems, interact and integrate. We want more than the common denominator of examination success – exams are part of, not the end all of an education.

The oldest pupils in the school are now in Year 10. Everyone waits with baited breath to see if the GCSE results will stand firm – not in terms of excelling, but in terms of supporting what is far more holistic than test results. If they do, we’ll have a very exciting model of education indeed. I’m already scouting for a site for a School21North. Anyone in?


10 thoughts on “Beautiful Work, Beautifully Done

  1. Hi Debbie, I’m in. …I’m a Consultant Headteacher for EOS teaching alliance who have done amazing things with Ron Berger’s stuff in disadvantaged areas in Lincolnshire.
    Their conference is in April..sold out now.Hywel is speaking at it.
    So pleased that he school 21 work is as good as it looks. Fabulous

  2. Enjoyed reading this article, palpable how the students learned and would love to be amongst them.

  3. You nailed it with these words:

    ‘ a beautiful combination of rigour and creativity; of collective responsibility and individuality; of freedom and responsibility.’

    Great to meet you – looking forward to seeing you again soon!

    Bec Tulloch

  4. ‘ “Creativity operates within constraints,” he explains “deadlines, briefs, obstacles…” And so the children are given creative briefs, but within tight and demanding constraints. ‘

    Back for a second reading with a colleague and we felt this quote summed it up;

    ‘Freedom is the life of art, but anarchy is fatal to it.’

    Drama teacher and English Teacher reporting for action – let us know when – we’re in!!!

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