In fact, there's not much time left over for doing much of anything, and I really insist on having balance in my life, so blogging takes a back seat (actually, it usually resides in the boot). All these years into it and it seems I must be at home, ill with the flu before I can find the time (though my energy is limited!) to think about the blog. Enough people have emailed to say that they have read every word on the website to remind me that I really better start blogging to give them more to read.
It has been just over a year since OFSTED came calling (January, 2015) and we are certainly much further along than we were at that point! We have more than doubled the number of children attending Small Acres and the family community is strong and committed. Parents can clearly see how their children are thriving, blooming! We are creating a strong school culture and the children are bringing it home with them. They ask for family meetings, work on their own projects at home, have polite, genuine, engaging conversations with other adults in their lives, make the most astonishing pieces of art, read peacefully on their own, help with chores, solve their own problems and communicate with empathy and fairness. They love school.
It has not been a smooth road getting to this point in our journey. There have been parents who thought Small Acres was the right school for their children only to find that it wasn't the right place for the parent. No place is perfect for every person and a new school is not going to be the most stable of places: policies are constantly needing to be revised, everyone wears many hats, new relationships are being forged (not only among the children but among the adults as well), money is extremely tight, resources are stretched, people are asked to contribute more than is humanly possible, idealism can collide with reality, old experiences and expectations will colour interactions. Thinking you have found the answer and then finding it doesn't match with your values or expectations can be very difficult and can lead some people to react in anger when their needs can't be met. People who are angry do unexpected things and can have a tremendous impact on a fledgling community, whether intended or not. Picking up the pieces takes time and energy. It also means rethinking policies or actions that led to the problems and finding new ways to communicate and to be more transparent to prevent similar situations in the future.
I have learned that the strength and health of Small Acres is directly tied to the depth and type of culture that we create. Every school, every group, every family has a culture. It develops over time and impacts everyone associated with that particular institution. It is important that the culture have, at it's foundation, a strong set of values that honestly reflect the purpose, values and aims of the group being established. Establishing the culture must be a priority when setting up a democratic school and it is not an easy thing to do. The very nature of a democratic institution means that everyone has a voice. Giving space for every voice and, at the same time, creating a cohesive underlying culture is a very, very tricky thing! (see the next blog which is about developing empathy).
Much of the underlying culture of Small Acres is created, and changed, in the Morning Meeting.
Trying to balance the needs and wants of the individual with the health and needs of the group, is a priority. This balance is challenged on a regular basis as everyone learns to communicate clearly and distinguish between needs and wants. Maintaining this balance is crucial or you can end up with a few children (or adults!) taking too much space, wielding too much power and control. This is how democracies fail: the powerful few controlling the culture of the group.
The meeting is Small Acres' way of keeping this balance. Problems are addressed in meetings: The daily Morning Meeting, individual meetings involving those impacted by a specific occurrence, meetings to address specific needs or problems. Without a meeting, problems remain unsolved, experiences remain unshared and there can be no understanding, no agreement or change. At Small Acres, we recognise that there is no specific right answer or response to any situation, we all have issues to resolve and we all make mistakes. Meetings help us to understand each other and to establish empathy. A meeting is important to the democratic process. I can't imagine a democratic school where is would not be the case. Meetings are crucial and must take central stage at Small Acres. One of the most important reasons for the meeting is that it 'levels the playing field'. In our meeting everyone is able to have a voice. For the younger children, the new members, the quieter ones or those still learning English, this can mean having the support of another in order to have a voice. An objective person as support is often needed in a meeting, particularly if there is a problem involving an individual who has yet to find their voice. I know that meetings prevent bullying. If a child feels free to bring up a problem in a meeting, that child can rely on the support of the group when confronting behaviours in another that verge on 'bullying'. With empathy in place, there is no need for blame or fear of punishment. I already knew the value of the meeting to the democratic process, but this year it has become even more clear to me. We could not exist as a healthy community without the meeting.
One of the most controversial policies at Small Acres involves a child being asked to remain at home. Some parents equate this with exclusion in the state school system and they are horrified by the idea that a democratic school would consider this. We do need to consider the safety of the group. If a child is making the space unsafe for another child, or if a child is disregarding the needs of others, it has occasionally been necessary to ask a child to remain at home for a day or more. This is a very rare occurrence. We have learned, from experience, that the needs of the group must be considered first. We have found, through experience, that it is important to be able to ask that a child step away from Small Acres for a limited time if the child is not able to come to a meeting to talk about the problem. You can read more about this under our Anti-Bullying Policy. Click here to open that page.
I have also learned to have a thick skin, to not respond to aggravating emails for at least 30 minutes, to know that we can not meet the needs of every family. It has been challenging, rewarding, exciting, horrible, and excruciatingly complicated at times. For every three steps we take forward, there are always one or two back, but the group is coming together, it is getting easier and we are growing.