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Students ditch smartphones and go back to basics in pioneering King Alfred School project

PUBLISHED: 09:19 23 June 2017 | UPDATED: 09:19 23 June 2017

The Village Project at King Alfred School.

The Village Project at King Alfred School.

Archant

For one week in the summer term, 50 King Alfred School students camp outdoors with six teachers and form their own community.

"One of the central aims is to look at the conditions for creativity and to learn more, at a deeper level, about independent learning, trust and what we mean by responsible individualism."

Stephen de Brett

They elect governance, they vote on issues, make decisions as a democracy, build their huts, cook, clean up and learn to live cooperatively. Entering the village as fledgling Year 8 pupils, they leave as leaders, negotiators and sustainable environmentalists.

According to Stephen de Brett, founder of the project concept, “the ‘village project’ is an exercise of experiential citizenship.” He said: “It gives students an experience of how to build a community and an opportunity to learn what is important in that process.”

There are two starting points to the project, one is design and technology and the other is PSHE. In the 10 weeks leading up to entering the camp, the students learn a wide range of subjects and skills to qualify them as citizens of the village, or villagers. The skills they learn such as conflict resolution, public speaking, negotiation, community building, engagement in the democratic process, team building and many more, could be considered essential skills for life and highly relevant employability skills.

Five children live in each hut. Each hut has to buy their own food, work out their recipes, light their own fires (and keep the fire going), cook their own meals, wash up and keep their space in order. One of the most common remarks from students is that they never realised how much organisation it took to run a home.

The Village Project at King Alfred School. The Village Project at King Alfred School.

The students have no contact with their families for the five days. They are relieved of their smartphones and I-pads for the week, without access to social media. Without exception, students were positive about the ban.

Mornings begin with a village meeting with the elected student leaders. Writing journals and meditation are part of the activities, as is blacksmithing, woodland craft, drumming, oil paint making and ukulele lessons. Story telling, star gazing, silent disco and a water slide introduce some fun down-time.

The children can choose for themselves what activities to do and at the end of the project they have to produce something that represents their time in the village, for example an axe, a scarf, a piece of art. Many students this year made flutes from wood. They are freed from the demands of the school but in many ways the time is far more demanding because they make choices about how to spend their time,

how to handle boredom and how to resolve any conflict.

The Village Project at King Alfred School. The Village Project at King Alfred School.

The experience is not without its hardships, they can suffer sleep deprivation, lack of privacy, no electricity and the ever-present challenges of negotiating the cleaning up. The students push through challenges, take risks and are allowed to make their mistakes. A community develops, in a true sense of the word, with its social awareness, democracy, leadership, empathy, conflict and division of labour. This is often the first time the teenagers live in a grown up world, where teachers trust them to make the right decisions for the individual and the Village. The children’s autonomy empowers them.

The teachers in the village are quiet facilitators in a student led environment, their approach is a step further back than that in the classroom. Students who are non-contributors in the classroom can become contributors in the village.

Stephen de Brett added: “One of the central aims is to look at the conditions for creativity and to learn more, at a deeper level, about independent learning, trust and what we mean by responsible individualism.”

This year’s village was the fifth since the project was revived in 2013, yet it remained a village of firsts. The 2017 village saw students build clay ovens to cook not just pizza but cookies; install a hut doorbell; invent a four bucket washing up stand; compose a village anthem which they played on homemade penny flutes; design a triangle in the forge for calling meetings; create a dream catcher to display their spirit animal runes; they welcomed a village dog (Baxter) and hosted a closing ceremony complete with homemade elderflower cordial and village pipers. The villagers’ experiences were captured in the first ever village speakers’ corner video diary room.

The Village Project at King Alfred School. The Village Project at King Alfred School.

Since the first village in 1990 students have been very eloquent about what it meant to them, how important it was and what they learnt, even after many years after the project. Last year a student from the first ever village project came back to tell King Alfred School that the week spent in the village was the first time she found her voice. She is now a headteacher of a school where she wants to run her own village project.

The 2017 village project has drawn together strands from across a wide range of curriculum areas – English, history, geography, science, design technology and art. It has done this in the context of a residential experience in which students have been challenged to develop their resilience and independence, their ability to work in collaboration and their understanding of themselves and their peers.

Rod Jackson, head of upper school, said: “Each village project is unique but this year’s has been particularly special. This group of Year 8s demonstrated a real willingness to meet challenges, to persevere, to reflect on their experiences and to extend their understanding of themselves as individuals and learners.”

From hut construction, fire building, menu planning and conflict resolution, the inhabitants of the village project this year will emerge with self-reliance and a new self-awareness, proud of who they are, and with more appreciation of the world around them.

They experience what makes a sustainable community and understand conservation in relation to local and global environments. The King Alfred team continues to cultivate progressive methods in the ways we school our children, we are not afraid to develop learning of a different quality and at a different pace.

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