By Rachel Andersson

Every now and then you hear about a school that has bucked the system to espouse its own set of rules instead of the ‘one size fits all’ policies prescribed by the government of the day.  And while we are often frustrated by the constant struggle to operate effectively within the confines of our national education policy, we will also, capriciously, regard anyone shunning the system with suspicion.  Alternative methods are frequently described as ‘wacky’ or ‘new-fangled.’  We often don’t trust them, so we dismiss them.

Philip Oltermann recently wrote about one such progressive school in The Guardian. The Evangelical School Berlin Centre is a secondary school in which there are no timetables, no ‘lecture-style’ lessons and where students only start receiving grades for their work after they reach the age of 15.  The only formal subjects are maths, German, English and social studies; other subjects are more abstract, focused on themes such as ‘challenge’ and ‘responsibility’.

For example, when students are aged 12–14, they each receive a budget of €150 (~£128) and must plan a 3-week learning ‘adventure’ or ‘challenge’.  These take place out of the school environment and are often practical in nature – trekking, kayaking, or working on a farm.

For all the students’ self-determination in terms of the subject matter they cover, rules are apparently strict.  For example, pupils are expected to attend special sessions on Saturdays to catch up if progress in lessons has been slow, so along with freedom comes self-discipline.

We are then told that students from this school regularly top the league tables for Berlin’s comprehensive schools.  But like many progressive schools, Evangelical School Berlin Centre is private, so it doesn’t automatically draw from the broadest cross-section of society.  Its fees may be means-tested, with about 5% exempt from paying fees, and 30% of its students may be from migrant families, but the fact remains that those students’ families have actively chosen this school and its methods for their children.  Presumably, therefore, many of these students may be predisposed to benefit from an alternative style of learning.

It seems that 40% of the students have been advised not to study for the Abitur (A level equivalent) examination, presumably by previous schools, but after joining Evangelical School Berlin Centre they have gone on to study successfully for it. This may be an impressive statistic, but it’s likely that many of these are students from supportive families who are committed to exploring different ways for their children to succeed.

The school’s head, Margret Rasfeld, is reported as saying:

“The mission of a progressive school should be to prepare young people to cope with change, or better still, to make them look forward to change.  In the 21st century, schools should see it as their job to develop strong personalities.”

These are worthy sentiments that surely can be applied to any school — not just a school with a progressive model.

Evangelical School Berlin Centre has only been open since 2007, so its first pupils are only just finding their feet as young adults on the career ladder.  In order to judge the school’s effectiveness in preparing its students for future careers, surely we need to know what career choices these early students have made.  How have these ‘strong personalities’, used to determining their own educational path and taking responsibility for their learning, adapted to a company culture that is strongly hierarchical, or where there is limited scope for self-determination in a junior role?  Have they entered a wide range of professions, or found their niche to be more limited? And, of course, it would be interesting to see whether a group of non-self-selected students responded in the same way to these methods.

While it may be too early to judge how well the Evangelical School Berlin Centre has served its students in the long term, there is certainly merit in some of the ideas presented.  The themes of ‘responsibility’ and ‘challenge’, for example, are the sorts of ideas covered in PSHE.  With the focus increasingly on cross-curricular learning, there is scope to embed such themes firmly in our students’ learning by encouraging them to find ways to cover the inter-disciplinary links between, for example, computer coding and mathematics, or geographical and historical enquiry and languages. Our curriculum and assessment requirements allow less room for substantial individual challenges, but cross-curricular school trips, or student-driven focus days or themed weeks, that stimulate enquiry and draw on a range of skills and subject knowledge from the prescribed curriculum — while allowing some freedom from the rigidities of timetables and subject segregation — might be an effective way to enrich our students’ learning.

Blindly adopting a seemingly successful, but as yet unproven, system is never a good idea, but thoughtful cherry-picking can sometimes be a successful strategy.