This is part 1 of a 2-part interview for our democratic education champions blog. Part 2 can be found here.
If you’re attuned to the world of democratic education, you’re probably aware of Sands School and its co-founder, Sean Bellamy. Last year, Sean also took ‘DemEd’ to the international stage after being a finalist for the Global Teaching Prize. Our team met up with Sean to find out more about him, Sands and his perspective on education more generally.
Founded in 1987, Sands is a democratic secondary school located in Ashburton, Devon, with around 60 students. Based on the ideas of its predecessor school, Dartington Hall, students are given full autonomy and everyone within the community is equal. Largely, key decisions are made ‘…together in a spirit of equality and mutual respect’ by a weekly general meeting of all students and staff, or the elected student council which deals with discipline and individual issues or disputes in the school.
Students can choose whether or not to show up to lessons and, by-and-large, they do. This model may seem like another world to some, but it’s not new and it’s actually on the rise.
Sands is a lively and bustling community, with an estate full of innovative art, a skateboard ramp and a variety of young people studiously reading books, doing something creative or just socialising with others. For someone who went to a large state comprehensive, it is like entering another world, but it is seemingly one that works in terms of its results and, more importantly, it’s student satisfaction.
Sean helped co-found Sands in 1987 and is still a teacher there
Background and Origins
Sean didn’t experience democratic education himself whilst growing up. He attended a conventional grammar school, went onto Cambridge University and did his teacher training at Exeter. He later stumbled into the world upon graduating, when he became a teacher at Dartington Hall.
When he started at Dartington, he was somewhat a taken back by the unconventional nature of it and the wild lifestyle of some of its older pupils. He jokes ‘I thought “This is weird and wonderful” .... And when I arrived they thought I was an undercover drugs cop!’ Due to his ‘straight edge’ and ‘unboozed’ look as a then-triathlete.
Sean got stuck into life at Dartington, living at the residence, looking after its pupils at the weekend and teaching various subjects at different age groups. However, it was in his second year of working in there, in 1987, that the head teacher announced the closure of the school, following much bad press and a drop in student numbers.
The imminent closure posed a dilemma for many of its students of where to go: ‘We sort of realised that we had a group of children who had often lived at Dartington Hall all their lives. They had been boarding since they were 3, 4 or 5 … and this was their home and so the two teachers who I was teaching with - both had faced the closure of the primary and one who had been the head of the primary - said “This would kill me if I had to be in another school that was closing, throwing these kids out on the street”. So they suggested we start our own, at least temporarily to get those kids through their exams’.
Out of the ashes of the old Dartington Hall, Sands was born to meet the needs of those who been affected by its closure. Other than this, there were few other draws to creating a school and a belief in democratic education took a back seat as a motive for Sean. In fact, the thrill of setting up a school at the age of 25 alone was enough for him: ‘I had affection for the kids, but more it was about me’ he quips.
‘We sat in the garden and we designed [the school] with the kids and it’s been a constant process of co-designing with adults making suggestions, kids countering it’. This, he tells us, has been an ethos within the school ever since, forming an organic evolution of collaboration which is on-going.
Sean currently teaches psychology, history, and geography up to exam level as well as mentoring around 12 students outside of subject based learning. He’s often found playing board games or running icebreakers with newer students to the school.
The school community makes decisions through a weekly all student and staff meeting. Credit: Ashoka
Community Led Discipline
When you explain Sands or democratic education more generally to someone, one of the first responses tends to be about discipline and whether things deride into chaos without authoritative teachers or strict discipline. So how does the school manage behaviour?
Sean admits that his teacher training didn’t quite prepare him for the Sands ethos: ‘I thought I had to carry a massive authority to hold kids on a journey that they didn’t want to be on’ but he later went on to realise ‘...if I did it cleverly, they were prepared to give a little bit of their life to be with me, which I think is a really good quality as a teacher - to make them feel like they’re on an amazing journey and they give up playing in the sun, respectfully, to be with you to give them a chance to be on that journey.’
As for the day-to-day discipline of the school, the sense of community amongst pupils and staff is integral: ‘It happens all the time through the school … students are helping monitor what happening in class and saying [things like] “If you’re in the wrong frame of mind … why don’t you go have a cup of tea for 20 minutes” or they’ll say “That’s not acceptable because I’m trying to learn.”’
In fact, a key pillar of students being accepted to attend Sands is their own individual decision to want to learn, meaning disruption is rare and often peer-managed: ‘... there’s a lot of that happening naturally because if you’ve chosen to come through this door to learn, you didn’t come to socialise or to mess about or to get the most out of a social moment because a teacher is doing something horrible to you.’
School rules and punishments are decided by the school general meeting and monitored by an elected student council, working alongside teachers. However, Sean is very keen not to get too caught up in a culture of retribution. What’s important to him and the community in Sands is that there is room for reflection after a rule has been broken, rather than what he terms ‘A quick fix’ of punishment.
He tells us an anecdote about a student getting caught stealing a sandwich: ‘A fifteen year old is going to handle that probably better than me because they actually know how it feels, and you don’t have to be that hard … they’ll find a way so that person’s reflective, because the essence of what we’re trying to do is develop an environment where reflection is happening and often what happens in state school is that it’s all reactive … punishment stops reflection, so if you have a school that’s based on punishment rather than discussion, all the kids are doing is reacting against that event rather than their behaviour’.
‘Then you get into the nitty gritty of trying to work out if the punishment is right when, most of the time you don’t need it. You just need to listen and when the child goes “Wow, I hadn’t seen it that way… that’s really bad. That’s their only food today.” … when you get that reflection, you’ve got movement.’
In short, by giving students the space to reflect on what they’ve done, they’re far more likely to understand the issue and correct their own behaviour. The school also tries to embed elements of restorative justice too, so students may want to repent their actions by doing something that might benefit the community, rather than undertaking a punishment that has little social benefit like writing lines.
Testing and the Mainstream
Sands School is an Island which isn’t immune to the sea of government policy regarding education, despite its independent status. As the culture of exams and regular testing grows, where does this leave Sands and its mission of offering a more holistic educational experience?
‘It’s really tricky’ to provide such an alternative type of education in this environment. ‘We also get seduced by the demands of Ofsted and we find ourselves changing subtly to please, to stay safe, not to be judged, not to be threatened against things we’d probably happily defend.’
Exams, and the growing emphasis on them is one thing that Sands sometimes finds difficulties in managing: ‘We are internally very liberal and understanding, but we do offer more exams - kids feel like they have to do exams more than they ever did. And the truth is they don’t - they think it’s a way they get valued by the world, and although we try not to reinforce it, by the very fact we offer GCSEs … reinforces the idea that learning in this way is somehow the way you become a better person which is weird, because it’s not what we believe’
‘The mainstream affects us quite strongly; it’s not a subtle influence and you have to work quite hard to push it away. But it's hard because if you’re seen to be lacking, you threaten the future of the school.’
Despite moving toward the mainstream somewhat, Sean also suggests the tectonic plates of Education Policy has left them still quite far out of it: ‘We’re more radical than we were than we started, because the mainstream has moved’.
Going into more depth, he explains what he believes to be the results of putting such a strong emphasis on competition between schools and pupils: ‘Schools are factories which barcoded products, which is comparable to another school and the only thing you’ve got to base that on is quantifiable material and quantifiable is not happiness or emotional intelligence. It’s attendance, it’s exam results.’
He argues that the result of this also leads to STEM subjects being prioritised as part of the race to get good quantifiables. However, ignoring other parts of education does not offer a well-rounded education either: ‘People were saying it’s because we’re trying to prepare young people for a world of technology. Actually, in order to be a full human, you need to embrace your creative, your expressive, your religious, your spiritual, your whatever. These things are being minoritised for the wrong reason - we’ve hung on to those things like play, creativeness and communication that we and all those other things at the heart of what we do.’ He goes on to say how the ideology of competition in education focuses on logical, left side of their brain thinking and excludes creative who may use the right side.
So how does Sands square the circle of the national curriculum and exams against their ethos of giving students autonomy and choice in how they learn? ‘In their heads anyway is a story about the value of exams. The teacher should model doing something brilliantly, something to aspire to … I should model something that makes them realise whether we’re going for exams or not, doing something with depth or sincerity matters and the by-product of that … is that they do well.’
‘If we teach well with passion … they should get a pass at the very least, if we tutor them in exam technique, they should do better than that … but we should also teach them that it’s so much more than that - they bring with them qualities as a person’.
As we see later in the interview, alumni certainly attest that Sands does promote an individual’s qualities to them. In addition, students get ‘Good’ achievements from exams, due to ‘…a result of good teaching, an effective curriculum and excellent learning environment’ according to Ofsted.
Sands really does seem to show that another way of doing things is possible in education, not only in creating happier students, but in getting them to engage with education on their own terms.
The Sands Community. Credit: Sands School
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