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Positive, progressive schooling at Frensham Heights

Andrew Fisher, Headmaster of Frensham Heights School, reveals how they push the boundaries with liberal schooling

Posted by Julian Owen | November 20, 2017 | School life

Frensham Heights was founded in 1925 as part of the Progressive School Movement. From the outset, the culture was co-educational, non-competitive, non-religious, seeking to educate through cooperation rather than coercion. Students had a voice on all issues: dress, activities, rules... Wonderfully, the Head would take staff out for the day and ‘leave the keys’ with the students as an act of trust. We still trust our students, although times have changed and we wouldn’t go quite that far now! 

We remain true to our cultural heritage, though, and continue to innovate. From nursery to A-levels, we strive for a different culture, yet have ambition for our students. As a member of HMC we stand out and give a different perspective: liberal, progressive schooling doesn’t mean under-achievement or chaos. 

Today, Frensham is non-uniform and uses first names, and the student council still expects accountability from the headteacher. Yet, when I first arrived in 2004, I was surprised to find external pressure for conformity and results at all costs, while the expectation to raise academic standards was leading to an increased fear of risk, more didactic teaching and a withdrawal from the school’s early courage. Thankfully, with a strong Board of Governors and passionate staff, both teaching and non-teaching, we continue to live differently and set an example in areas such as behaviour management, leadership and creativity.

Junior outdoor learning

Frensham remains committed to valuing creativity equally with academic achievement. From nursery to the end of year 9, all students have weekly lessons in fine and 3D art, dance, drama, design technology and music. We require at least one performing or creative art subject at GCSE as part of our ‘core’. Sport has equal status, too. We do compete externally in traditional sports, but rather than investing in the expensive equipment and pitch-side physios required for rowing and elite rugby, we offer mountain biking, rock climbing, high ropes, yoga, two surf trips a year... Sport for us is about life skills, healthy choices and opportunity for those who love to compete.

However, the things that most differentiate Frensham are how we manage behaviour, invest in staff development and are adapting to the digital age.

Frensham does not have detentions, house points or prefects. I don’t accept that staff should use ‘power’ or aggression when managing students. Instead, we have developed ‘Approaches to Learning’ – a clearly defined structure for conversation and student-led target-setting that seeks to change an individual’s behaviour but is never overlaid with negativity or anger. This covers all areas from independent learning to social interactions and attitude. Ultimately, we want the student to recognise that what they are doing is not working and needs to change. This takes longer and must be carefully monitored, but it works more profoundly than the behaviour management techniques I have experienced at my previous schools. We also hold reconciliation meetings where students are challenged to accept that their behaviour has hurt someone else or been unfair, unkind or damaging.

Frensham science class

To ensure staff continue to teach with courage and use Approaches to Learning and creativity in the classroom, we take a different approach to training. We continue to send teachers on courses, in addition we invite recognised experts into the school for extended periods so everyone benefits and feels that change is possible. We’ve recently worked with Professor Bill Lucas, who encouraged us to move further from didactic teaching to creative, open-ended, student-led learning. Dr. David Betancourt helped us put this into practice through lesson visits, feedback and target-setting. We are currently focused on improving teachers’ confidence with technology with Mark Anderson.

Our children’s future will be revolutionised by technology, so we must embrace it. We have integrated it into the whole curriculum, with 3D printers in Science, DT and Year 4! We don’t ban at Frensham, so secondary school students are allowed mobile phones. For us, technology provides opportunity, not threat. We must explain the pitfalls of excessive screen-time and be open when teaching young people to use the internet well, leaving a positive digital footprint. This is why we are developing a programme in which students will create their own websites with positive, ambitious and entrepreneurial reflections of themselves.

Considering Frensham’s curriculum as a whole, you can see how we are building on our progressive educational past while pursuing a distinctive approach for the future. I am incredibly proud of Old Frenshamians who work in all walks of life and demonstrate their distinctive combination of intelligence, creative individuality and an openness to other perspectives.

I only had 800 words to describe what makes Frensham so successfully individual, and I’ve not even scratched the surface. Come and visit – see if you might apply some of this to your own school. 

For more information on Frensham Heights, please visit frensham.org

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