Stories from Ex-Students
The following have been extracted from independent research on ex-students by Luke Freedman in 2019. They are reproduced here exactly as he wrote them.
SML College was Kate’s first experience of an organised educational setting. Before joining she had followed an ‘unschooling’ approach to life and learning; being supported by her parents to access interesting and stimulating experiences and follow her passions whatever they were. At around age eight she decided she wanted to learn to read, which she did rapidly, and around age nine she began playing music. Until age eleven when she joined the College, pursuing these activities, along with socialising with other home-schooled children occupied the majority of her time.
Her decision to join the college was driven by a desire to access new opportunities, engage in more formal academic learning, and be a part of a structured learning community. Although she didn’t imagine she would find the rules or structure of mainstream school problematic, the idea of being in classes with people who did not want to be there, were not interested in learning, and might not appreciate her passion for learning put her off. SMLC ‘…seemed the perfect compromise between school and full home education.’
Arriving at the College, Kate found exactly what she was looking for; new opportunities to learn and do things she had been previously unaware of, adult tutors who were caring, passionate and knowledgeable, space and time to pursue her interests and studies with support available when it was needed. Although she had not been aware of it, Kate had been self-managing all her life and found it easy to adjust make the most of the freedom and opportunities on offer.
“I was absolutely like... Just ecstatic like at how many things I could learn and how many things they wouldhelp me with…” [sic]
Unequivocal in her appreciation of Self Managed Learning, her reflections on the group processes at the College are more nuanced. On one hand, she appreciated the importance of learning groups, especially for students new to self-managing, and having a say in the way the College was run was empowering. On the other, she questioned the value of learning groups, at least for herself, and on some occasions she found the democratic resolution of interpersonal issues harsh. Ultimately however, she credits her experience of group processes at the college with the development of important personal characteristics.
“It gave me the confidence to kind of stand up and potentially argue or reject someone else's opinion, if I thought that it was wrong or if I thought that it was unfair in some way and it gave me that confidence to do that and also to feel like I could do that to adults as well. Even if I felt like they might patronise me or if I felt like they knew more than me or that I was probably wrong. It was like… it… it definitely gave me that ability, which obviously is massively important, and I think for me, it was probably more important than the actual Self Managed Learning.”
Driven by a desire to further her passions, Kate left the college after 3 years to pursue a course in horse care and the beginnings of a career in music. Later, after completing GCSE’s independently, she joined a prestigious local 6th form to study English Language and Literature alongside her ongoing music studies at a conservatoire in London. Torn between continuing formal education in English or Music, she chose music.
Now twenty-two she is currently on course to complete a BA in music. Although she occasionally finds their passion for drinking alienating, preferring reading and creative purists as a means of relaxation, she has good friends and an active social life in Leeds. Deeply committed to music, she is crystal clear about her life’s direction and unperturbed by the knowledge that pursuing her passions may not bring about huge material rewards. Kate has grown into many things; musician, reader, singer, dancer, thinker, caring moral human, and much more besides. Connecting all aspects of her life and character is a unifying thread; a deep and profound love of learning.
“It’s just like learning is the reason I'm alive really, like, I mean, the thing that keeps me going, regardless of anything, is always that feeling of just like how much there is to learn and that I can never stop learning, and in a way, I definitely felt that at the College because I was exposed to so many different areas and so many different subjects whether they were academic or creative or even just areas that were just personal, that personal development, like, I think that idea that you never stop growing and you've never learned everything and that if your purpose in life is kind of just to constantly get better and constantly learn more then that can never be exhausted and I definitely, definitely got that at the College.””
“In primary school, I used to bully. And I do believe it’s because I wasn’t getting what I needed from the institution to begin with. Like you know, I had learning needs that weren’t being fulfilled, therefore it was frustrating constantly being in lessons. It frustrated me continuously. And then also there was lack of empathy to try and get help which led me to be worse than I really would have been, if it would have been in a pleasant environment. I don't really believe most children, primary school students, really, with OK upbringings, you know, really have it in them just to be absolute assholes just for the sake of it, there has to be something else, I don't really agree with the kids will be kids mindset.”
After leaving the primary school described in this quote, Johnny went on to a Steiner school. He disliked this experience as much as if not more than his primary school, resenting the compulsion to engage in activities he found no joy or purpose in, such as expressive dance. In social terms, while the teacher-student relationships were improved, he found the student-student relationships poor. The combination of these factors caused him to dread attending school and regularly feign illness to avoid it, and his poor attendance eventually resulted in him being expelled.
Initially attracted to the humane atmosphere of SML College, he hadn’t really considered their pedagogy before he began. Happily, although he had never previously experienced anything resembling a self managed approach to learning, he found it incredibly easy to adjust, describing the process as taking just a few days. It seemed as if self-managing came naturally to him, and now that his studies were no longer compulsory his relationship to them rapidly began to change.
“I started to enjoy them a lot more. I started to pick up more stuff as well. I started learning the piano. I was just enjoying learning more. I started enjoying English which is something I really really hated but I ended up enjoying it because they let us write about we wanted as long as we fulfilled the criteria of what we needed to do.”
He also adjusted easily to the social environment which was refreshing in comparison with past schools.
“It was a little bit unusual because it wasn’t what I was used to. Everyone was very loving and kind and empathetic. So it was quite unusual to be treated with humane respect. A kind of mature level of respect and kindness throughout the whole community… It's quite a natural thing to become accustomed to.”
Johnny had always had an interest in playing the piano but had never had the confidence to try. At the College, the combination of his growing self-assurance, and the availability of a tutor he trusted enabled him to finally take a step which proved to be pivotal. He was soon practising at every available opportunity and decided to pursue further education in music. With the help of the college, he identified a suitable course in music production and prepared an application which was accepted. He flourished on his music production course, finding himself to be much more self-motivated than the majority of his peers.
“I feel like that was a big thing I had from an early age because of SMLC. I knew that if I want to get anywhere doing what I want to do I actually have to put the effort in and do stuff on my own. Be proactive. And I feel like at college that really helped me, because in the music industry and most industries if people don't see you actively working towards something, they are not going to let you in on whatever they’re doing or help you get to that place either. I felt like because I was always proactive, and I was always trying to do something, and I was always doing the thing that I want to do, I was given a lot of opportunities that other people weren’t.”
Now aged 19, Johnny has just completed his music production course and is working as a live sound and lighting engineer at a variety of venues around Brighton. Doing a job he ‘absolutely loves’, pursuing his passion for music, enjoying a rich and active social life, and two years into a joyful romantic relationship, to say Johnny is happy with his life would be an understatement. He directly credits all of these things, as well as his confidence, strong moral compass, empathic caring attitude to the people and the world, and his sense of personal responsibility, to the experiences he had during his two years at SML College.
“I believe I was only able to get to where I am now because of SMLC. SMLC has helped me develop into a person I feel happy to be. Without that guidance I believe I would be an unhappy and less emotionally mature person with little to no skills.””
Mike never struggled to find purpose in the activities and lessons he was obliged to do during his time in mainstream education. However, he found the social and physical environment - big schools, big classes - intimidating, and decided to move into home education for a more intimate and personal approach to learning. For four years, home education worked well for him, but aged fourteen his family did not feel able to provide the support necessary to study for GSCE’s and together they decided to look for other options.
Mike was attracted to the combination of freedom, flexibility and support, and the small size that SML College offered. Although he had been out of formal education for some time, his home-schooling had been organised and directed by his parents and tutors. The concept and practice of self-managing was entirely new to him.
“I definitely did struggle to manage my own learning… managing my timetable… making sure that I actually did the work or stuck to my timetable. There was so much freedom at SMLC as I'm sure you're aware of… yeah… and… trying to commit yourself to your studies while there is also sort of the social element; it was tricky. It was very difficult as a teenager to do that yourself. Of course at school you'd be disciplined if you're talking in class whereas at SMLC instead of doing what's on your timetable you had the flexibility to do something else, without punishment. So. I guess that was quite tricky.”
At the same time, he reports appreciating the flexibility to study whatever he wanted whether or not it was academic, receiving support without judgment to pursue his interests, and being able to use online resources to study at his own pace. He also valued the social dynamic of the College, the way tutors related to students, and the capacity to have a say in the way the college was organised.
“You definitely had a voice at SMLC I don't know ever it's still the case now. But back then every morning we have a meeting, actually it was twice a day, at the beginning of the morning at the end of the morning we'd have a meeting. We could express how we feel about things and any issues that we had. So I think that was definitely a bonus. You weren’t… It wasn't the typical teacher-student relationship where the teacher tells you what to do. The teachers were listening to your opinions. They gave honest advice. They treated you perhaps in a more mature way than would be at a conventional school.”
As he came closer to his GSCE’s, which he considered important at the time, Mike was able to motivate himself to commit to his exam preparation. He achieved good passes in Business, French, English Language and Maths, and along with the personal statement the college helped him to write, these grades got him into the college he wanted to attend. However, a combination of factors including lack of support and the intimidating scale meant he did not get on with 6th form and dropped out after 3 months.
After leaving, Mike joined an apprenticeship in digital marketing. The combination of real-world activity, small group size, being paid, and having the good fortune to be placed in a company which like SML College valued his voice, meant that this programme worked incredibly well for him and he flourished. Since finishing his apprenticeship he has continued to progress in the digital marketing industry and is now the head of SEO for a marketing agency, an impressive feat for a 21-year-old.
“I tell you what I love it. And again you're probably going to think oh stop comparing yourself to your peers. But when I look at myself in comparison to some of my peers who are just coming out of university. So many graduates are looking for apprenticeships. It's crazy. It’s almost like those three years, or even college five years that they've spent doing that just to be in the same position that I was back then… Definitely I don't know. I don't know what the word is. I don’t know whether pride is the right word.”
Looking forward, Mike hopes to further his career, pursue his passion for travel, learn more, and eventually start his own business, reasonable aspirations for someone in his position. Reflecting on his time at SML College he considers its greatest benefits to be developing social skills and learning the importance of motivating yourself:
“… although I found it a struggle at first the lack of structure and lack of being told what to do. In reality that's something I was going to face at some point in my life anyway so… I think… I guess SMLC did help me in that, and help me to realise that I am the master of my destiny or whatever and that only I can choose where I go.”
The next story is one that relates to when we had the programme in Ian Cunningham’s house. For four years he had 12 students and two staff occupying all the ground floor of the house. He also built a music and art room in the garden. He had already built an office in the garden (which students called the shed) After four years the College moved into the Brighton Youth Centre so that it could expand as there had been a long waiting list for places.
The bullying began in David’s first year of secondary school. Unfortunately, despite drawing the school’s attention to the abuse he was suffering - first verbal and then physical - he received no meaningful support. Over the course of several years, the bullying not only persisted, but worsened, and as it did so did David’s anxiety and depression. Just before he left mainstream education, David was being physically assaulted regularly. Never knowing when the next attack would come, he existed in a state of constant fear. He avoided eye contact with other students, ate his lunch in the toilet - the only place he felt safe - and often considered self-harm and suicide. Clearly, attendance at school was incompatible with even the most basic level of wellbeing.
After six months at home, David’s family began to look for educational environments that might be able to meet his needs. Away from school, his depression had improved somewhat, but his anxiety was still extremely debilitating. SML College seemed a good fit for his educational needs, but at that point, just leaving the house was a real achievement.
“The thing that I liked about it when I did start going was just how gradual and how comforting the environment was. I would walk past the window and cover my face so I didn’t have to see or look at any of the other students and I would go straight to his shed and he would do like 1-1 sessions with me. He would do Maths and stuff and… I mean it was quite difficult even though obviously it’s… looking back it doesn’t seem that much but it was a big step… and then… it was very gradual so… but it was progression so we would… I would progress over time… and then I would be exposed to the other students and then I would actually be able to go into the house and do some stuff there and like talk to other people… cause I basically had a phobia of people my age and the way they slowly introduced me and understood… like Ian really understood what I needed at that time and that's what I think was the best part about being there.” (sic)
At SML College David found a place where he felt accepted for who he was. The attentive attitude of tutors led to David being formally diagnosed with autism, missed by his previous schools, which helped him to better understand himself. Although he did take part in formal study at the college, including gaining a good English GSCE, in his view the most important thing he achieved at the college was a transformative positive shift in his psychological wellbeing, a shift he understands as being enabled by the combinations of flexibility and structure, and freedom and support, which characterised his experience of SML College.
After SML College he went on to a mainstream 6th form and then University where he earned a 2-2 honours degree in Psychology. While it was initially a struggle returning to larger and more formal learning environments, which reminded him of his traumatic experiences in school, the personal development he achieved at SML College enabled him to make a success of both the academic and social aspects of 6th form and university.
Now aged 24, David enjoys a stable long term romantic relationship and participates in a variety of hobbies including learning how to code and play the piano. He is currently working in two part-time jobs at a pharmacy and as a tutor. While he is not yet fully satisfied with his work life, he is proactive about improving it and optimistic for the future:
“It’s just like minimum wage stuff but it's better than nothing and it's a lot better than what my parents and what a lot of people thought that I would be doing 8 or so years ago. They thought I would never leave the house or I’d never really be able to function… like I could barely function as an individual person let alone manage to get or maintain some kind of income. I think it is a big improvement. Obviously I’m very… I’m really wanting to work more and find a more stable income so I have been looking at lots of different options. I might even go back to college. I’ve been thinking of doing an electrical engineering… like that type of [vocational] degree.” (sic)”
David only spent two years at SML College. However, he clearly understands his time there as a pivotal period of his life. Without it, he imagines he would have been less conformable and confident in himself, less socially skilled and active, unable to function in paid employment and for all these reasons a less happy, less psychologically well, and less successful person.”