School spotlight: Wotton House International School

Having questioned the necessity of formal exams in the modern world, Wotton House International School is following its own path, and more and more families are reaping the benefits, writes Jo Golding

Founding year: 2016
Number of pupils: 60
Number of staff: 12
Pupil age: 11–16
Fees per term: £3,000–£4,000

Whilst schools across the country are getting to grips with teacher-assessed grades, one independent school in Gloucester is ahead of the curve.

“It’s very ironic that what teachers are being asked to do now for GCSE results for the summer is exactly what the MYP asks teachers to do,” says Dr Daniel Sturdy, principal of Wotton House International School.

The school teaches the Middle Years Programme (MYP) of the International Baccalaureate (IB) for 11- to 16-year-olds. It is one of only 15 schools in the UK to do so. Sturdy says the traditional model of formal assessments at 16 is “enormously stressful” for children.

He explains: “There are, as anybody knows, multiple intelligences and multiple ways of doing well, and we feel that an alternative method of assessing pupils’ abilities and potentials has to be worth exploring. IGCSEs don’t fit the bill because they’re still based largely on final exams but the MYP does in that it is teacher-assessed.

“It’s an inquiry-led programme so it’s based on asking questions. It teaches thinking skills so that children become lifelong learners with a global outlook, a sense of mission and of wanting to give something back to society. I think all of those things are really important.

“We think for some students, in particular students with learning difficulties, it’s a far superior way of demonstrating their abilities. We think it is, especially given what’s happened with GCSEs this year, a really serious alternative to GCSEs.”

We’re constantly surprised that there isn’t more discussion of the MYP as a valid, rigorous alternative to GCSEs

An ‘e-Assessment’ option is now available with the MYP, but the school hasn’t explored it yet.

Sturdy says: “They’re very highly thought of and are regulated by Ofqual, but to some extent they are the IB trying to offer certificates to make them more similar to GCSEs, whereas what we like about the IB and the MYP is that it’s very different from GCSEs.

“We’ve been able to place our students who have graduated so far on the basis of teacher assessments and very detailed reports that we send without having to get the certificates that you would get from the eAssessment. So while they look good and we will explore them in the future, I don’t think they’re essential.”

1. One of 15 UK schools teaching the MYP
2. No formal assessments – students are teacher-assessed
3. Bursaries and scholarships available
4. Offers flexi-schooling – a combination of home education and school
5. Ethos encapsulated in the African proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’

As an alternative school, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Originally named Gloucestershire International School, Sturdy’s company (International Village Education) bought the school in 2016 and opened the new Wotton House International School that September; however, it didn’t meet Ofsted’s independent school standards until November 2019.

“We were trying to meet the Ofsted criteria for the independent school standards and the IB World School standards, and that was a big task for a small school taking on children who hadn’t been able to find secure places in other schooling systems,” Sturdy explains.

“We were also at the same time trying to be true to our own name as a progressive school, which meant offering a lot more flexibility.” The school offers a flexi-schooling option, where parents educate their children at home for part of the week.

“In retrospect, we probably took on too much too soon. We were a very small team at the start and we had to improve very quickly,” Sturdy reflects.

The hard work paid off because the school has now met all of the independent school standards by Ofsted and has become a member of the Independent Schools Association. They’ll now be inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

“I think they will be more sympathetic to our ethos and aims, but having said that, I do like a lot of the new Ofsted inspection framework,” Sturdy admits.

“It seems to be asking the same sort of questions that we were asking, which is great, but that wasn’t the emphasis two years ago – it was very much outcome driven. Now it’s saying, what are we teaching children? Why are we teaching? I think those are really important questions to ask.”

Get lost in nature

Wotton House International School offers its progressive education across two sites: the main school in the middle of Gloucester and The Wilderness Centre in the Forest of Dean, which is designed for pupils to “disconnect from routine and technology and connect with nature”. Typically, younger students take part in activities – such as ecology, outdoor learning, bushcraft and den building – one day a week.

They’ve been unable to start a new outdoor leadership course, which all students were going to start this summer, due to the school closures but they hope to get it going as soon as they can. It will involve one or two sessions a week at the centre leading up to an exploration and camping trip, similar to The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

During the UK’s current state of lockdown, pupils are learning at home using their school-provided Chromebooks. As a Google school from day one, teachers and pupils have been comfortably using Google Classroom remotely and have also started using Zoom – a combination that Sturdy says, “seems to work best”.

He says: “We’ve had to alter the timetable a lot. We’ve had to make sure that children are going outside and enjoying the good weather. Some parents do worry about the screen time and so do we, but there isn’t really an alternative at the moment that works.

“We don’t think it will be a wasted term, which I know some headteachers are worried about, but I don’t think that’s true. I think our students are learning and developing.”

Lessons make use of targeted educational technology to enhance learning

Sturdy says going forward, the two most important areas for development are technology balanced by sustainability: “What I’d like to see is a school that is progressive technologically but at the same time very rooted in nature.

“That’s a model which I think a lot of schools will be exploring, how they manage those two different things.

“No one knows what the right answers are but this test that every school has been put through is going to come up with some really interesting answers, and I hope that we are at the forefront of that discussion.”

Sturdy has an international ambition to create a group of five or six schools worldwide, but not on an ownership basis. “The schools run purely for profit aren’t, in my opinion, doing as well as schools which have a broader motive, a philanthropic motive or an educational drive.

“Our goal isn’t to open lots of schools simply to make money, but to open schools to further the IB’s goal of students having a genuine global understanding to solve the problems of the next few decades.”

The school currently has 60 pupils – including around 15 from a recently shut down local school, Wynstones – but the goal is to grow pupil numbers to 100.

As a school thinking carefully about what education is for in the 21st century, questioning the way things have always been done, offering lower fees for better accessibility, and championing both tech and nature, Wotton House International is certainly shaking up the independent school sector.

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