This is the second part of an interview with Sands School co-founder, Sean Bellamy. Check out part 1 here. 

Sands Teaching Credit Ashoka

The teaching environment in Sands is more informal - there is no uniform and everyone is on first name terms. Credit: Ashoka


Teaching, Learning and Citizenship

As you chat to people around Sands School, both the students and teachers will tell you that ‘Everything in Sands is learning’. Whether it’s speaking up in a meeting, building relationships with peers or simply sitting in class, the school tries to ensure that its students take their whole experience with them into the real world, not just knowledge from the curricula.

So how does teaching work in a school where every students’ autonomy is sacrosanct?

For Sean, one of the key things to how democratic education works at Sands is authenticity. Reflecting back, he says: ‘By the end of 5 or 10 years, I’d seen enough amazing wisdom from kids … We carry with us a wisdom particularly of what we’re doing. A two year old really has a great wisdom about them about what it is to feel authentically two. And if we hold that in our vision, a 12 year-old has a very strong sense … of what it is to be 12. And if you stop interfering they show you - then your school should model an idea where you can feel deeply authentic at the age you are with your interests and passions.’

In his view, the mainstream asks students to compromise who they are as individuals, through things like uniforms, by top-down modelling: ‘I think the problem with state schools, is that their ideology - well-meant or not - is asking children to be something they’re not: Which is to behave like perfect pupils or delinquent pupils or something invisible.’

‘What we’ve discovered is that, if you stop interfering, they show you who they are and basically you’re trying to retrofit exams and learning around that.’ Sean says school probably should be cancelled on snow days to let children play and, if they don’t come to class on a sunny day, one shouldn’t get frustrated, because not only with they come back to class eventually, but: ‘...what they’re doing is listening to their hearts and their heads in a more authentic way and if you do that, you find a more authentic rhythm of learning and the clever thing you then do is try and do really, really brilliant education’.

Fitting education to the needs of students seems key to how teaching works at Sands. Speaking to teachers at the school, this seemed key and what they do to enact this is keep a close eye on pupils and their progress. One teacher, Huw, told us that when students are not coming to a class they’re simply asked ‘why’ - this allows a teacher to adapt how they’re teaching to the child’s need or to make individual adjustments that may reinvigorate their enjoyment for learning that subject.

Another key aspect to Sands’ success when it comes to teaching and learning is derived from what alumni of the school say to Sean. ‘They say things like, you were a complete bastard, Sean, but now we know why’ he jokes, telling us how he’s mellowed over the years, and taken a more reflective route to conflict management.

‘Nearly always they say it was a place that made them feel they could do anything, even though they didn’t do a lot … it showed them that they had potential because we had faith in them and we trusted them and when you trust people to make mistakes and grow from it - that’s an amazing resource for life. Because if you’re never allowed to fail, you don’t know your deep resources’. Sean really tries to get across the point that failure isn’t shame - this is something that shrouds the educational ethos of the school as a whole.

And then there’s the matter of citizenship. Sitting in the general meeting of the school, one is taken back by some of the well-formed contributions of younger pupils and their ability to articulate problems and solutions. Sean says the reason for this is simple, in that to be in the school ‘... You have to learn how to have an opinion and you need to learn how to make decisions … having an opinion - a real opinion - involves a journey through thinking, and schools are stopping children from thinking 3 dimensionally because there’s only a right answer.’

‘If that’s all you’re learning, aiming towards a linear right answer, you can’t have opinions because you can’t think three dimensionally, you can’t hear someone else’s point of view because you’ve been told there are wrong ideas and right. So you have a culture that narrows the way young people think.’ For Sean, Sands has created an environment where thinking can be explored in all its dimensions, rather than one which is binary.

Overall, the reason Sands is able to create a sense of citizenship in its learning community is because it practices it: ‘You can’t be teaching citizenship while actually the whole structure is hierarchical and authoritarian. You have to make it part of the life of the school, so a citizen is a member of the school, which means if you’re going to have a uniform, make the teachers wear the uniform … model citizenship, don’t model hierarchy!’


Sands school meeting

Credit: Sands School


What can the mainstream learn?

Sean talked a lot about the differences between mainstream schools and Sands in our interview. He draws clear differences on models for discipline, learning, autonomy and attitudes that many schools could learn from, even if only in part. But what else can mainstream schools learn?

Building relationships between students and staff in the day-to-day running of the school is one way. Sean argues that children have enough wisdom and letting them exhibit it freely can open up the school environment: ‘The only wisdom [mainstream schools are] allowing, is whether a child is clever enough to be behave well … anything that is not that is delinquency’.

‘So, the most important place for children to have a role is in the disciplinary procedures of running how the school is kept safe, because that’s the place where teachers go “Oh my God, they have got our interests at heart as well - they do want to create a safe learning environment.” - and that’s where to get the fastest return.’

Another issue we touched on relates to how you build a school community, or effectively have forms of student leadership in bigger schools. Sean suggests that as part of creating citizens in the school community, you have to make students feel like they can make a difference: ‘And that’s not going to be hard - you can have older kids mentoring younger kids in helping make the difference in making their voices heard elsewhere in the school. You can have what we have; a staff appraisal system where kids appraise the staff with an elaborate questionnaire and that changes the structure of the teaching fabric.’

When you implement ideas like this, he argues that it becomes their school, whereas in many schools, students have little or no ownership.

Lastly, several times through the conversation, Sean raises his opposition to school uniforms, partly for egalitarian reasons and also to allow a freer expression. ‘The uniform actually disempowers them… the idea it equalises - well equalise it right across!’ He points out that many students try to deform or individualise their uniform anyway: ‘Isn’t it telling us that actually we should allow them to express who they are through what they wear?’

‘Of course there’s risk, but guess what - when someone comes to school with an SS badge on, you have an opportunity to talk. No punish, but talk. [A student might say] “My great grandfather was gassed in a concentration camp and that really upsets me, can we talk?”. A brilliant opportunity - but that’s not being fearful to allow bad behaviour to create discussion and opportunity to change.’


The interesting thing I gathered from my discussion with Sean is that he, as someone who didn’t get a Sands-like education himself, has been on a genuine journey as a teacher to somewhere quite different from where he started. This mirrors the school quite well, which has seemingly changed a lot since its conception too as different cohorts have brought different ideas.

Sands may be a small, fee-paying school, but from my discussion from Sean it seemed like not only could the mainstream learn a lot from it, but many ideas at Sands might just be common sense that hasn’t been realised elsewhere.


Sands School Elephant

The Famous Sands School Elephant!


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