It was common in my school, and I believe still is, for teachers to chide pupils who were not working. Working meant working at a prescribed task from the teacher. Also in modern parlance, there is reference to having pupils ‘on task’. If you are not working at a prescribed problem or task, then it is assumed that you were not learning.

Recently a parent asked me what we would do if a student is not working. I indicated that we may do nothing since it’s not apparent that it’s a problem. Often when I was criticised in school for not working I would be thinking about something not to do with what the teacher was prescribing – but it was productive thinking as far as I was concerned. The notion that work and learning go together is strange to me. For instance, I worked on a production line once. After the first day I wasn’t learning anything. In school, I might be given 10 maths questions to answer. But if I had understood what the learning point was, and had answered the first couple of questions correctly, I could not see the point in another eight that may be increasing in complexity, but did not enhance my learning. ‘Working’ in school is not necessarily equal to learning and on the other side learning does not necessarily equal working.

One of our students has commented on the fact that she spent time doodling in school and was criticised for this but actually it was her way of learning since she had dyslexia and she found that drawing was a more suitable way to record what she was thinking. When she came to us she spent a whole year doodling and drawing cartoons, making figures out of plasticine and seemingly nothing else. It may not have appeared that she was learning but she was. This subsequently produced, two years later, her first graphic novel at the age of 15 and it’s a novel that has received much praise. The publishers were quite shocked that a girl as young as 15 was able to produce such mature material. The book sold out quickly on Amazon.

I repeat that there are lots of times I’ve worked at things and have not been learning and lots of times when I’ve been learning but not working at things. Many writers have indicated the importance of play in learning. Gray (2013) provides a comprehensive analysis of the importance of play, especially for children, but also for adults. Many educationalists head to Finland to find out about the education system because it is seen as successful. One thing they seem to miss is that children in Finland do not go to school until they are seven. The importance of the kindergarten experience and play seems to get missed because people go with blinkers.

Another use of the notion of work is in the imposition of homework on young people. Note that it is not about home learning. The assumption is that person will work on school-directed tasks while they are away from the school. What we do know is that young people learn a huge amount within the home and from people they interact with outside school. One example from our research on both young people and adults. is the value of travel. Unfortunately schools in England fine parents who take children out of school to travel in term time. The Government has demanded that headteachers of schools take a draconian attitude towards this and fine parents. The norm is for parents to be fined £60 for a day out of school for a child that is taken without permission. This rises to £120 if not paid within 21 days and after 28 days parents can be prosecuted. In England overall in 2017/18, there were 260,877 penalty notices issued for unauthorised absence from school. There were 19,580 prosecutions for non-payment of fines. This has gone up from the previous year of 13,324. There have also been ten parents (usually mothers) sent to prison for lack of attendance from their children.

In our College we encourage parents to travel, if they can afford it, because we see the value in it. A good example was a 14-year-old student, whose parents were working for a few months in India. She was able to go with them and carry on with her learning. A lot of the learning was of course about being in India and learning about the culture, language and norms of another society. She remained for the two months she was away in contact with her learning group via a weekly Skyping session. Her group was able to engage for most of the morning with her while she was sitting on a beach in India with her laptop.

This negative attitude towards travel seems to be linked to the whole notion that young people should be working – either working in school or working at home on prescribed school tasks. The notion that there could be important learning by being in another culture seems to have escaped authorities. We do know, of course, that many parents want to take their children on holiday because of the increased prices of holidays out of term time. The assumption is that there can’t be useful learning on holiday. This notion that you don’t learn anything on a holiday is directly contradicted by our research on young people. There’s the experience of different food, different language, different culture – all valuable learning experiences. Our research with senior leaders in organisations has indicated that they have gained a great deal from travelling, not just abroad but also within UK. Hence we encourage parents to utilise the opportunities to travel with their children and for students when they come back from travelling to reflect on what they have gained from any new experiences.

What has been interesting is how ex-students refer to what they learned at the College. Many talk about gaining social skills. Now we don’t teach social skills. We create a learning community where students learn to interact freely with others. Some of the learning comes from structured experiences such as the fact that each and every student gets the chance to chair our morning community meeting. However much of this learning is from the seemingly non-working side of the College – i.e. learning through engaging with others and learning what works and what doesn’t. The weekly learning group also provides a space for each student to reflect on their experiences during the previous week and to consider what next to do.

Here are direct quotes from ex-students from independent research during 2018-9.

“I feel as if the SMLC developed my social skills greatly – perhaps due to the mixed age groups and alternative nature of the people who attended. I didn’t do too much academic study, but I don’t think I suffered in the long-term from that at all.”
“Friendships, Social skills, the importance of motivating yourself.”

“Although I don’t think I got a lot out of SMLC academically, I think it really helped me to increase my confidence and connect back into society after having been very isolated. I think socializing was the biggest and most positive thing I got out of my experience.”

The research also showed how much ex-students valued having a real level of freedom and what they gained from that.

“Allowed me to make decisions about what was best for me and I don’t regret a single .”

“By allowing & thriving for independence. If I had not attended SMLC, if I had not been given the opportunity to try and test new things, especially the invaluable work experience with my dad, I would be very, very lost.”

“Easing my way into education and social environments has helped me learn and change on my own terms, and be myself more comfortably. Being an accepted part of a community whilst being strange and ever changing helped me grow immensely.”

“It allowed me to focus on what I wanted do with my life and provided support for that.”

“I think it gave me some time as a teenager to figure out what it is that I actually enjoy doing I may have forgotten that for a while but have gotten back to it of late. I don’t I’d be as sure of what it is I want without having attended. Not to mention I’m still close with one or two people from there.”

“I made new friends; I got to learn what I want to learn.”

Self-confidence was mentioned often as an outcome of the way the community works.

“Build my confidence by being respectful, no shouting or any fear-based learning. Before SMLC I was sick to my stomach sick at school always sad and in the toilet. After leaving I was full of confidence and caught up with all the school work that I had missed which was about a year out of school. I had the confidence to go any school and not let authoritative teachers get me down as much as they used to.”

“It helped me to be confident in being myself and knowing that I was free to be interested in and love whatever I want. I would say it helped me a little in managing my own learning and reaching my goals but I also know that those things are quite natural for me as I’ve always had a really clear idea of where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing. SMLC definitely did a lot for my confidence. ”

This latter quote in its mention of learning to manage one’s own learning – and life – is supported by other comments.

“I have made many different friends during my time at SMLC. I have also learnt how to better my time and organise myself. This has come in very useful when trying to juggle college, work and social life.”

“It definitely helped me with art. I think it also made me more independent.”

The last area I want to mention here is on the emotional learning that goes on. Students feeling valued and supported. And developing emotional maturity to with that.

“It made me feel like an actual individual rather than just another name on a sheet, I have so many good memories from SMLC”

“Well I probably would have killed myself (without SMLC), I wasn’t enjoying being home-schooled, I had no friends, it also helped me achieve the necessary qualifications to move on to college which I also didn’t really like.”

“I find myself to be much more emotionally mature than my peers. I know myself – who I am, What I need, What I want – much better than anyone else I know. I know, appreciate and respect the value of education because has it has not forced upon me in a careless and rigid way. I have experienced freedom in my life and my education, which I don’t think many people do or at least feel they do and this has reinforced my belief that ‘doing life’ in your own way and outside of the norm, in a way that benefits and suits you, isn’t naive or stupid. I can say that everything I’ve done has been my own choice. And knowing that I have this freedom continues to inform my decisions and thus makes me very happy. I can’t blame anyone else for these choices and I can’t be ‘sour’ because things haven’t worked out for me. Further, in terms of higher education – having studied for my GCSEs more or less of my accord and in my own way, I found the work at College to be relatively easy in terms of reading etc and especially in terms of University – I have the motivation to read etc and then apply and evaluate that.”

“I made four good friends, two of which I am still very close with now. The staff were very supportive but not pushy. I felt comfortable and secure there. I felt valued and important. I was able to get GCSEs to progress to college (which I thought I wanted at the time)”

The learning and development that ex-students cite has not come from ‘working’ in the way that many parents and teachers would demand. The learning looks almost accidental and yet it is the core what is important. Young people are developing their identity in this period of their lives and they are learning to develop what has become labelled ‘emotional intelligence’. This emotional maturity has been shown to be more important than IQ or academic qualifications in adults satisfaction with life and success in their careers (see e.g. Clarke et al, 2018).


Clarke, A.E., Fleche, S., Layard, R. Powdthavee, N., and Ward, G (2018) ‘The Origins of Happiness: The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course’. Princeton University Press: Princeton
Gray, P. (2013) ‘Free to Learn’. Basic Books; New York

Ian Cunningham, 2019