This is the most unusual school in Britain. the classroom isn’t a classroom. It’s not even the traditional portable cabin. It’s a tent, in some woods. The school ask that the location is not revealed other than to say that it is in Somerset woodland, just south of the elegant town of Bath.
“It’s a yurt,” corrects Faith Fewer, the head (and only paid) teacher. “A traditional Mongolian tent, made by a yurt-maker in Devon. We liked his organic style.” (click “more” to read the rest of this story).
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Last week the school opened its door… er, yurt flap… for a pupil recruitment drive.
It is the School In The Woods. If you can find it, your children can join it.
To prevent disruption from curious members of the public, the exact location is secret.
Directions amount to: “On the southern edge of Bath… you will see a tree with a swing… follow the path, a clearing will emerge…”
We (eventually) found Ms Fewer and the yurt, and – once the school bell (well, the sea horse wind chimes) summoned them from the woods – we were joined by William Bozic, 11, Oliver Westcott, nine, his brother Alexei, seven, and Annie Martin, nine and a half.
They acted out a song involving the “icy north wind” and a little robin. They recited their seven times table (flawlessly …er, I think) while throwing beanbags in the air, then sat on the rugs behind their low desks to discuss the huge difference between humans and animals – and then write their ideas in their exercise books.
This involved discussing concepts such as being able to use their hands creatively, a Bible story (about man having dominion over the earth) and an old-fashioned blackboard.
“A while ago,” smiled Annie, “I was thinking, ‘I wish we didn’t have summer holidays’ because it’s really lovely here in summer.”
Not even some old-fashioned multiplication on the old-fashioned blackboard changed her mind.
As Kate Westcott, 46, Oliver and Alexei’s mum, explained, the parents are “a fine artist, a life coach, a counsellor… from artistic, healing backgrounds.”
They started the school in January 2002. Some had struggled with older, dyslexic children in conventional education.
Others had children distressed by an emphasis on “sitting and writing”, or a discipline regime based on black marks and missed playtimes, or – in one case – the insensitivity of fellow pupils pulling wings off insects.
The parents and Ms Fewer, 44, a softly-spoken Canadian-born musician trained in the Steiner teaching method, want about four new pupils to “spice it up and provide more variety”.
Getting your child into the yurt three days a week will cost 280 a month and a regular turn at organic toilet cleaning duties. (A parent must empty the wood shavings into the compost buckets once a week.)
“We are taking responsibility for our children’s education,” enthused Mrs Westcott, who, like the other parents, teaches her children at home on the days they don’t attend yurt (school). “Faith can know and teach them as individuals.”
Perhaps, then, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, would be pleased to declare this the ultimate in small class sizes and parental choice as promised by HM Government?
“I’m not sure this is quite what they envisage,” laughed Mrs Westcott. Indeed, it is possible that some aspects might have Miss Kelly reaching for the smelling salts and ordering officials to scour woodland near Bath in search of a renegade yurt.
“Ofsted doesn’t visit,” smiled Ms Fewer.
“We are not registered with the local education authority,” added Mrs Westcott. “You don’t have to be registered unless you have five children at a school full time.
“We looked into registering, but so much bureaucracy comes with it.”
Asked about targets and league tables, Mrs Westcott, who got two A-levels at a girls’ boarding school, smiled.
“Personally I wouldn’t encourage them to go for GCSEs. A-levels and university, if they are interested – although I sometimes think university is overrated – but GCSEs: I don’t think they need that stress.”
As for where the National Curriculum comes in…
“It doesn’t,” said Ms Fewer. “They are going to learn everything they need but we don’t agree there can be a prescribed curriculum based on outcomes deemed desirable by officials, academics, or God forbid, politicians. We look at how the children respond.”
“I left my old school when we were about to start SATs,” added Annie.
“I started to get unhappy. I think my teacher was under pressure. She was really strict and shouted at my friends.”
Ms Fewer put more wood on the yurt heater, a recycled gas cylinder.
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