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School 21 has the key to the door of learning

Sitting in a meeting room at School 21 in Stratford, I was completely captivated by the three light shades hanging above the large table. Transparent squares, decorated with rainbow bright patterns were attached by tiny screws to form an octagonal sphere which hung around a squirrel cage filament light bulb.  They wouldn’t have looked out of place in an interiors shop in hipster Shoreditch.

I mention these beautiful objects because they go some way to illustrating the philosophy of this state-funded school which opened just four years ago. Founded on the principle that education should engage the head, the heart and the hand, School 21 takes an holistic approach designed to equip young people with the skills they need for the 21st century and beyond.

Project based learning plays a critical role in engaging students, not only making academic teaching more meaningful, but leading to them creating and producing work which has a life, relevance and currency beyond the classroom. A Real World Learning Programme sits on the timetable alongside eight GCSEs – essentially the EBacc – placing year 10 students with employers working on projects which actually fulfil a business need.

At the curriculum’s core is ‘oracy’ – numeracy and literacy’s verbal sister - helping all students to express themselves fluently and grammatically and develop their speaking skills. By the age of three, children from privileged families will have heard 30 million more words than those from under-privileged backgrounds. Good grades might get you the interview, but the CBI ranks verbal skills at the top of the ‘skills wish list’. School 21 helps every child to find their voice; to be confident, articulate and have something interesting to say. It’s not hard to recognise the role of ‘oracy’ in driving social mobility and literally giving young people the self-assurance to speak out.

Childhood mental health is an issue currently receiving a lot of media attention, but at this school, wellbeing is built into the curriculum. Timetabled coaching sessions provide a forum for discussion and creates a kind and supportive environment for students. Just as salient is the enthusiasm, commitment and happy disposition of the staff.

It’s very hard to visit School 21 and not come away feeling evangelical about the work they do. Headteacher and co-founder Oli de Botton says, ‘Everything you do has to build a legacy. Together we can ensure every child leaves with the power to change the world.’ Who could possibly argue with a mission like that?

Jayne Phenton visited School 21 with representatives of NE LEP, Excelsior College, Norham High School and Churchill Community College (pictured with School 21’s Partnership Development Lead, Kathryn Eastwood) as part of Edge’s Give Yourself the Edge programme, which aims to support schools in building employer engagement and skills development.