Why can’t schools focus on the whole child again?
I’m amazed and inspired by a school in Bali, where exam results are not the top priority
The Guardian, Friday 20 June 2014
I was fortunate enough recently to visit Bali. I expected all the usual – sun, sand, sightseeing. What I didn’t expect was an epiphany about how my daughters were being educated – or miseducated. An excursion to the Green School in Ubud amazed and inspired me – particularly as I watch my 12 year-old’s anxiety over her assessment tests and my seven year old struggling with homework.
You walk into the school to the sound of freeform rock music being practised. At the entrance, parents mingle with children and visitors – there are no gates here or security fences. As you make your way to the school, the first thing you see is a shop selling recycled goods made by the children, while on the other there are open cafeterias selling vegan ice cream, juices and raw, living food. No Turkey Twizzlers. A poster advertises the visit of Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost chimpanzee expert, who is spending the weekend there.
Can this really be a school? I am struggling with the idea. The lessons take place in open-sided bamboo pods. There is a rushing river that runs through it – at the side of it, a swimming pool for the kids has been dug. A bamboo bridge runs over the river, where lessons sometimes take place. Just behind are residences, where some of the parents live with their children.
Some children are away on a surfing day. Others have left for a silent retreat. There are more than 30 nationalities here. Our guide, who is standing in a mud pit where the children do martial arts, takes us on a tour – past a young woman he describes as “one of our spiritual leaders”. He shows us the arrangement of pods, each created to look like a species of animal – the one I am looking at now mimics a turtle.
There is no bullying in this school. There are no uniforms. There is no concern with passing exams. All they want is for children to pass out “whole – and OK with themselves”. Drama, art and music are at the centre of the curriculum, on an equal par with science and maths.
My guide is a parent, Chris Thompson, formerly the CEO of a technology company. His love for this school comes out of every pore. He shows us the oven – no electricity, only wood-fired and using sawdust for fuel. He shows us the solar panels and the giant river turbine that will power the school from next year.
I think again of the uniformed regiments of my children’s school, on the way to getting results, results, results. This place with its eight-to-one pupil to teacher ratio – three adults in every classroom – has all the resources to produce amazing test scores. But it isn’t interested in that – or not primarily interested. It is interested in what British liberal education was once concerned with – creating a whole human being.
At the heart of the school is a huge, remarkable double helix bamboo structure (the whole school is built of bamboo) where the pupils gather and learn and eat. Everyone is smiling. Chris spots his daughter, picks her up, and she talks about how she created a song for the school website. He looks so proud. She looks so happy.
What has happened to us in our country that we have forgotten that education can be such a joy? How did it all become such a deadly grind? I am inspired by the Green School in a way that I have rarely been inspired by any institution – so much so that I am already making concrete inquiries about getting my kids into the place.
If you, like me, have become cynical about education and its purposes, check out its website, greenschool.org. You will realise, as I have, that there is a different way for our children. My ambitions may be just a romantic dream. But the school is real, and that dream is real – and there for anyone to see.