British pupils fly out to teach the Japanese: A school from Devon is set to explain the mysteries of progressive education. David Nicholson-Lord reports

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The Independent Online
THIRTY-FIVE British children - an entire school - will land at Tokyo airport at dawn on Tuesday to be greeted by television cameras and lights. For three weeks their hosts will be the villagers of Oshika, in Japan's mountainous interior, where they will work with farmers, learn traditional arts, and stage their own version of the Chester mystery plays. The cameras will record it all.

Japan is worried about its education system and is casting about for alternatives. The Japanese educational trusts that are financing the visit, the six television channels that competed for the right to cover it (two were selected) and the people of Oshika think they may have found one in a remote corner of Devon.

The children, aged 11-17, are from the Small School in Hartland, near Bideford, a pioneering venture in secondary education which, in September, celebrates its 10th anniversary. The school is being transported en bloc to Japan at a cost of pounds 20,000.

Oshika fears its own school, hit by declining numbers, may close. Its residents want to regenerate village life and resist the spread of urban values. Many Japanese also feel that their education system is stressful and competitive, squeezing out creativity and being too geared to the needs of industry.

But why turn to Hartland? Both communities are small and rural. But Hartland, which lost its secondary school in 1961 - forcing children to travel 13 miles by bus to Bideford or Bude - made a remarkable recovery in 1982. A disused Methodist chapel was up for auction and Satish Kumar, editor of the green magazine Resurgence, newly based in the village, bought it for pounds 20,000. Ten supporters took shares of pounds 2,000, and the school opened with nine pupils and one teacher.

Mr Kumar's aim was to remove the 'atmosphere of fear' from schooling. 'Education cannot take place as long as fear of discipline or of being labelled not good enough is the motivation. Large schools are institutions because that is the nature of largeness - there have to be rules and regulations. I wanted to create a school which is like a family.'

The Small School has no formal sanctions, such as detention. If a pupil offends, the response is to 'do a circle' - sit in a group and talk it through. This may not unearth the offender but it exerts a powerful moral pressure. One pupil cites a case of stealing from a student-run tuckshop: nobody confessed but it 'put people off doing it again'. Everyone agreed to share the cost.

Caroline Walker, one of the three teachers, says that intimate knowledge of children and their families means disruption can be handled without sanctions. 'We prefer to face the child with his behaviour and work with the parents to put it right. We also stress their responsibility to the group - not to disrupt others' learning. That can only happen in small groups where the relationship with the teacher is close and friendly.'

Children and staff call each other by their first names. Pupils help to plan and cook the school lunch: they also clean the school at the end of each day. Visitors are struck by the pupils' maturity and self-confidence - one post-graduate student teacher called it 'a very distinct quality, a mixture of independence and openness'. Colin Hodgetts, the headmaster, says there is no vandalism and truancy is not a problem.

Teaching is based on a 'pupil-negotiated curriculum'. Each new school year, staff try to reconcile the wishes of children with the requirements of the GCSE. Five GCSEs are needed to move on to A-levels at sixth-form college in Bideford: the Small School's results have been consistently above the national average.

More than 30 subjects have been taught, from cobbling and cheesemaking to Russian, Latin and calligraphy. Sons of farmers have learnt book-keeping, animal biology and roofing. 'The principle of following the child's interests minimises your biggest problem, which is motivation,' says Mr Hodgetts.

What do the children think? The consensus of a group of five, aged from 14 to 17, is that they like the adult relationship with the teachers, the 'family' atmosphere, the emphasis on personal as well as academic development - but a few would like more competition in sport and more fellow pupils their own age.

New pupils unused to the freedom often run wild initially, they say.

Abigail, 14, said: 'I sometimes feel I am not getting on as I would if I was in a big school, but that is because I don't push myself hard enough.'

Tim, 15, said: 'I really like it because you get to know everyone.' Cleaning every day, he adds, 'makes you respect the school a lot more'.

Katherine, 14, left Bideford Comprehensive because it was too big. But Emma, 13, is leaving the Small School for a comprehensive at Bude because she wants more contemporaries.

The Small School is cheap to run - pounds 1,400 per pupil per year for 35 pupils (Bideford Comprehensive costs pounds 1,800) - but partly because its teachers are paid only pounds 7,500 a year, well below Burnham rates. Parents pay pounds 150 a term: the rest comes from donations.

Yet despite an Exeter University evaluation of it as an educational success, its application for voluntary-aided status, which would have meant the local authority financing the school, was turned down by the Government.

(Photograph omitted)