Many Transition initiatives find interesting ways to work with their local schools, from food-growing projects to Transition Tales to tree planting. But the story I want to share with you today is the tale of the Transition initiative which actually became a school, which set up a new school from scratch. The Swanage School opens this week, “a human scale 11-16 community school” built on foundations of Transition thinking.
As their website says:
“The Swanage School has been created on human scale principles, which means that strong and genuine relationships – within school, with the local community and with the wider world – are at its heart. The school combines local learning with a global outlook”.
I caught up with one of the school’s founders and now a governor, Paul Angel, via Skype. Four years ago, a group in Swanage was fighting to keep the local First School open, a campaign which was successful. Some members of the group were members of Purbeck Environment Action Team (PEAT), a very active Transition initiative based in Wareham. The idea arose of starting Transition Swanage. Paul had recently done a Transition Training and brought those ideas and tools to the group.
At the group’s first meeting, a list was drawn up of the things that people loved about Swanage and the things that could be improved. Top of the list was a new secondary school for Swanage. The previous one had closed down 40 years ago, necessitating an hour round trip to the nearest school for the students. A new school would reduce the need to travel, save energy, and mean that young people could remain in, learn from, and contribute to, their local community. They also decided they wanted to create a community noticeboard outside the local library, but I’ll come back to that later.
At the group’s second meeting, they decided to go for it, to make the school a reality, and so renamed themselves ‘Education Swanage’, and started the process of trying to make the school a reality. As Paul put it, “we decided ‘let’s do the biggest project we can think of and then embed Transition thinking within that'”.
They got good support from their local MP, started the wheels rolling, but it was only when the newly-elected Coalition government announced its Free School programme that the whole thing really started to take off. The Department of Education describe Free Schools as:
“… all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.”
The work they had already done, and the fact that there was no local secondary school, put them in a strong position. “We were”, as Paul told me, “an example of just the kind of thing they wanted to show off”. The group started putting their application for Free School status together, a process Paul describes as “onerous”, adding “it’s hard work and takes acres and acres of paper … but it has to be difficult or anyone would just do it”.
Although rooted in Transition thinking, Paul is clear that the school isn’t yet what he would call ‘a Transition School’, rather Transition serves as its foundations and as its aspiration. Here’s what he said when I asked him “so, what’s a Transition school?”
In brief, he told me, The Swanage School is a school which “embeds the core elements of the Transition model into everything it does”, as well as “setting an example for the students that you can do things if you really set your mind to it”. The school is also very much seen as being something that brings things back to the town. Although currently housed in one floor of a local language school, its new home is currently under construction (see photo below) due to open at Easter, and will include an Arts Centre and a small sports centre which will be available to the community to use, as the video below sets out.
The school’s grounds will feature native plantings, edible hedges and a permaculture garden. Students will do conservation work out in the community. As Paul puts it, weaving Transition into how the school works is about “making places as good as they can me while keeping the footprint small”, a school which is fully embedded in the local community and “making good use of what’s around”.
The issue of Free Schools has been a controversial one. For some people they represent the opportunity to introduce more choice into the education system, to make education more local and more human scale, and to introduce thinking and qualities that can be much harder to find in larger schools. They are also an opportunity, in cases such as Swanage’s, to put back local schools that were closed down years ago.
Paul acknowledged this tension, stating that they can be especially problematic for local authorities, who are losing funding and having to cut services, and who are then being undercut by private companies. In some areas Free Schools can make life much harder for existing schools, but for, what Paul refers to as “communities that have been left behind or let down”, they can represent a real opportunity. Here’s Paul on what he sees as being the pros and cons of being a Free School:
The school opened this week, so I also asked Paul how the school’s first week had been?
Does the school and the amount of energy it took to create mean that Transition Swanage will now remain a footnote in the history of the town. Paul’s sense is that once the school moves to its new buildings Transition Swanage will start again, and will start with the most remarkable ‘can-do’ spirit, having pulled off a project on such a scale, the first project they thought of at their first meeting.
But what of that second project, the community noticeboard outside the library? That project has, ironically, still not happened. Concerns over health and safety, to do with drawing pins and other aspects, have meant that the noticeboard has yet to get off the ground. In other words, it would appear, that in Swanage at least, it is easier to start a new secondary school than to erect a new pinboard!