Coco Kirkland joined Self Managed Learning (SML) College aged 13. She had been constantly in trouble in her mainstream school, because the teachers accused her of just doodling all the time. She was also diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. Having been labelled naughty, just because she sees herself as a visual learner, she decided she didn’t want to stay in mainstream school.
In her first year at SML College, she did continue her doodling and cartoon drawing and other visual activities as well as chatting to fellow students. To anyone observing her, she seemed to be doing nothing else. However, she was adjusting to her new environment where she could decide totally what and how she wanted to learn and at age 15 she published her first graphic novel entitled ‘Project Immortality’. The publishing company editor was shocked that a 15-year-old girl had produced work of such quality, and the book has been selling well ever since.
Coco did not just focus on writing her graphic novel. She became an expert on herpetology, for instance, and also decided to take a number of GCSE subjects. These were freely chosen by her and she decided to take two a year early. One of these was law, and as she said after passing it; “I made a comic about solicitors and barristers to help teach myself and to remember things.” She also commented that she has not seen ADHD and dyslexia as an advantage or disadvantage, just a different type of mental state. The College is renowned for taking a similar stance. All students are different and are respected for their differences.
Coco, like other students, spent her first week in College discovering more about herself and her ideas and directions in life that she was interested in. It is only then that we were able to help her to progress. For instance, having chosen law we could then help her to think about ways in which she could learn this, given that we didn’t have a law tutor, (neither, of course, did her previous school, who could not have let her take law GCSE).
She started to learn from a book designed for law GCSE. I asked if she would like to meet a lawyer, to which she said yes, and so we arranged for a lawyer to spend the morning with her just having a dialogue about the nature of law and justice and other ideas that she wanted to explore. I also asked if she’d like to see the law in action which, again, she said yes. So we arranged for a trip to the local magistrate’s court and other students joined her on the trip. Note that she personally chose the goal that she wanted, namely to pass law GCSE. She also chose the mode of learning. If she had rejected either of my suggestions, they would not have happened. Students have the complete right to reject any ideas put to them.
This is the essence of the Self Managed Learning approach. We are unique in providing this mode of learning for young people.
As well as working on ideas about herself and her directions in life, in the first week she also joined a learning group with five other students and one of the staff team as the learning group adviser. The role of the adviser is basically to support students and to help the group work effectively. The learning group provides a secure base from which students can go out into the College and the wider world to conduct their learning. Another way in which students can make decisions is through the daily community meetings. These occur both at the beginning of the morning and also at lunchtime. We have 40 students and typically three or four staff on at any one time, and the community meeting is chaired in rotation by students (who are aged 9 to 17).
We talk about our College as a learning community because everyone is treated equally and is equally valued. We have no ranking of students and genuinely love having students who bring different perspectives to the College.
I recollect a girl who had come to us on the basis that she had major learning difficulties. She found even basic maths almost impossible, and her writing, while adequate, was not sufficient to pass an English exam. However, in our community she was brilliant within meetings because she was a clear moral compass. She was the one who would raise issues of morality and ethics and to challenge others in the community.
In our learning community the diversity that exists is of great value. For instance, a couple of our autistic girls have developed a very nice PowerPoint presentation on autism, which they use occasionally in our community meetings. This helps, especially new students, understand issues of autism and how those students on the autistic spectrum can be helped within the community, whilst at the same time being valued as individuals who bring something to the community.
What is appalling is that the organisational world is starting to get interested in neurodiversity and to value employees who may be on the autistic spectrum or may have dyslexia or dyspraxia, whilst schools clearly often take the opposite stance. Schools in England that are chasing exam results in academic subjects, as encouraged by the Government, end up valuing only those who can pass exams in academic subjects. We are clear that this is a misguided role for schools and that it’s our duty to recognise that the research shows that adult life satisfaction is best predicted through developing emotional well-being during the teenage years.
Dr Ian Cunningham, Chair of Governors, SML College, Fishersgate, Sussex