Why I Started a Small School
One hour talk by Rosalyn Spencer
Introduction by host:
Rosalyn’s mum was devasted when she was told by her teacher at Parents’ Evening that her 10-year-old daughter ‘always had her head up in the clouds, was never going to get anywhere in life’! For many years to come this belief was transferred to Rosalyn’s parents and her three siblings; and led to Rosalyn having a very low opinion of herself. She left school at 16 and started work for a mail-order firm packing brochures into envelopes!
Having her head in the clouds wasn’t such a bad thing after all as it led to her eventually …
becoming a teacher
setting up and running her own 46 place nursery
setting up the small school (which you’ll hear more about later)
becoming an Ofsted Registered Nursery Inspector
being appointed Head of Nursery at an Independent School in Sheffield
teaching children with severe behaviour problems in a Residential Children’s Home in East Yorkshire
being appointed to set up and run Lincolnshire’s first Nurture Group with government funding at Mablethorpe Primary School
completing her Research in Education Masters Degree
being commissioned to write for national education and parenting magazines
being the Parenting Coordinator for Lincolnshire Youth Offending Service for 9 years
being a Respite Foster Carer
running a holiday cottage business in Louth
And currently …
working on a consultancy basis as an Elective Home Education Advisor for Lincolnshire County Council
a Trustee of Human Scale Education
trying to make time for writing
I’d like to start by playing you an interview I gave after my book was published as it explains quite a lot …
Lots of people say that their school days were the happiest days of their life – but how many people does this apply to? I know it applies to some individuals - but I know a lot of adults who felt that school had a very negative impact on them, and I am currently working with children who have been taken out of school to be home educated – sometimes this is a life-choice for parents but in the vast majority of children it is because school isn’t working for them.
We all learn in different ways. I learn and work best in a quiet environment with no distractions. I have building work going on at this moment in time and find it incredibly hard to concentrate on what I should be doing. Like-wise many children find it hard to concentrate and learn in a noisy classroom. Other children learn better by working with others in a noisier environment. We need to recognise that children learn at different speeds and in different ways. Good teachers try their best to meet the needs of individual children but it is incredibly difficult and they are constantly having to focus on league tables nowadays.
From the introduction you will have gathered that school didn’t work for me. I learned some things from some good teachers – and I will always be grateful to them – but a lot of the time I felt the teachers and the system were just wasting my time. It felt like a very long prison sentence for a crime I could not remember committing. And as I went to a Secondary Modern School for girls we were instilled with the belief that we would never have careers, and that the best we could hope for was a job in hairdressing or working in a shop that offered training until such time we would be married and have our own children. I remember a careers teacher trying to motivate us by saying that those of us who worked really hard might be able to achieve a job working in a bank or building society.
I only became a teacher because somebody else believed in me – I certainly didn’t believe in myself much in those days. I was one of the last to receive the three year full time teacher training programme leading to qualified teacher status with a Certificate in Education before teaching became an all-degree profession. I can recall nipping myself hard in a seminar shortly after starting college – I couldn’t believe that for the first time in my life I was being treated as if I might have some intelligence. And then I nearly dropped out before submitting my very first essay – I just didn’t believe I was capable as we’d only done ‘Compositions’ at school, not essays. It wasn’t easy but I was encouraged by my boyfriend to persevere. I was then stunned to receive a ‘B’ grade for my very first attempt when I was expecting to fail. That teacher who told my mum I would never get anywhere in life when I was ten had been my inner voice for so very long …
Anyway I became a teacher and vowed that I would never make a child feel inadequate – the way I had been made to feel. My favourite quote by Professor Tim Brighouse was firmly fixed in my head:
‘Everybody has intelligence …
It’s just a matter of finding the right door …
And then finding the right key to unlock it!’
If a child in my class was ever struggling to understand something, I would see that as my problem rather than the child’s. I needed to find an alternative way of teaching something, and even perhaps another, until the child could understand. I always did my best to find the right door – and then – sometimes with a lot of effort, I struggled to find the right key. I loved teaching.
Life moved on, I got married and had my first baby Daniel when I’d been teaching in the state system for just short of 5 years. I didn’t want to give teaching up, but neither did I want to hand my son over to somebody else. The only solution I could think of at the time was to open a children’s nursery. My book tells of the struggle to find suitable premises with only a £6,000 deposit available to us for the property and needing a loan to set up the nursery. It seemed impossible at the time but we did it. It became a very successful 46 place nursery, with after-school and school-holiday care facilities (before they became standard provision). I employed around 15 staff.
Generally all was well, while running the nursery and looking after Dan. I also somehow managed to achieve an Open University degree. And was amazed at the people I met at my first summer school. I was especially impressed by those who had, like me been failed by the school system, and were now discovering that they were intelligent after all …
The week that Dan started school, his new baby sister was born. Not brilliant timing perhaps – but we tried to give Dan all the love and support he could possibly need in his first weeks of being new at school (and being a big brother for the first time). But as time went on, all was not well for Dan. He just didn’t seem happy at school. I went into school a few times to express my concerns but felt I was being fobbed off.
The years progressed and Dan seemed more and more unhappy at school. I mentioned to the teachers that I thought he could be dyslexic but this was dismissed as a silly idea. By the time Dan was nine years old and Nicki was now four years old we’d reached the situation where Nicki had become a very able reader, almost self-taught (but obviously helped by being surrounded by books and stories for her entire life). Dan was used to a similar environment growing up but whereas once he loved books, he now hated them with a passion. He was made even more unhappy by the fact that his little sister read cereal packets, shop signs, anything she could get her hands on.
In desperation I attended some courses on dyslexia myself and I believed even more that Dan was indeed dyslexic. I went back to the school armed with some of the leaflets I had picked up. Again I was dismissed as being very wrong about it. Eventually I persuaded the school to assess Dan for possible dyslexia. They reluctantly agreed. They didn’t keep me very well informed about the process - then one day I received a letter – telling me that Dan indeed was not dyslexic but basically suggesting his problems were something to do with my parenting skills.
In my work as the Parenting Coordinator for the Youth Offending Service – I heard stories like mine over, and over, again. Parents being blamed when their children were having difficulties rather than identifying the learning issues the individual child may have and finding ways to help. But that’s a different story and one day I may write a book called ‘Lost Souls’ about this very subject.
Anyway – you’ve already heard the opening paragraph to my book, and here is the concluding paragraph to my first chapter:
Read final para p6
I think I had picked up a leaflet about an organisation called Human Scale Education during one of my annual visits to the Education Show at the NEC in Birmingham. Just as I was feeling total despair a Newsletter arrived from HSE which filled me with hope:
Handout - ‘Hope for small schools at last’
I was so inspired by the possibility of government funding for parent-run small schools that I picked up the phone to find out more.
Interesting story: The Fable of Fred
The rest is history ...
Thank you. I hope you enjoyed my story. Any questions?