Tag Archives: freedom

Aug 3, 2015

Quote of the week

Posted: August 3, 2015

The only freedom that deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it.

J.S. Mill


Mill, J. S. (1859). On Liberty, London, Penguin Books (page 72)

Feb 27, 2015

A school with no classrooms

Posted: February 27, 2015

Hellerup School in Copenhagen, Denmark is one of the most interesting schools I have ever visited. It is best known for its architecture; it was highlighted by Building Schools for the Future in the UK as an innovative school design. Architecturally, the school is astonishing. There are some classrooms – science, gym and woodwork are all in rooms with lockable doors – but apart from that, the school is open-plan. ‘Class areas’ are delineated by arrangements of furniture such as moveable room dividers, lockers, desks. No class area has a door and students can wander freely from one area to another. The school is located over three floors, all looking down over a central well and the famous ‘Hellerup stairs’ (copied in schools in Hull and elsewhere). The school design in itself is innovative, but it only makes sense in relation to the school’s pedagogy. The pedagogy came first; the architecture followed. Everything, including the acoustics, has been carefully designed so that even though the school is open-plan, it is remarkably quiet.

On initial impressions, Hellerup School looks like chaos: children everywhere, all in casual clothes; piles of coats, shoes and bags littering the floor. However, it is clear that this school is highly organised with six 45-minute lessons every day, each one started by an introduction in the cosy ‘base areas’. The curriculum, testing system and staffing rotas are all organised – it is the style of teaching and learning which is flexible and has the appearance of chaos. After being set a task (or learning objectives), children can choose how they want to learn. The building is explicitly designed around this pedagogy, and children are encouraged to move around and find a space in which they want to work. There are tables, chairs, sofas, beanbags, stages, steps. Children can work in small groups, in pairs, on their own. Within the school, there are dozens of quiet and cosy working spaces for children to choose to work in, including outside areas.

The school is for children aged 6-16. There are approximately 660 students on roll (with a waiting list). The three floors house ages 6-9, mid-secondary, and upper secondary (although there is some moving about between floors). Roughly, there are 70 students in each year group which consists of 3-4 class groups (23-25 per class). Sometimes they work in class groups and sometimes in year groups, which gives them a lot of peers to work alongside. Teachers are allocated to a class and year group, and they stay with this group for at least three years, which means that they know all students extremely well. Teachers do not move groups to teach subjects; the curriculum is project-based and incorporates a range of subjects. Students stay in the same class group from the age of 6 to 16. The school values building and maintaining good relationships with and between students, and it is this which guides the structure of the school.

The school has a commitment to ensure that the ‘learning styles’ of all children are accommodated. Although the school claims to start to identify learning styles in kindergarten, it does not appear as if these learning styles are used in a restrictive or prescriptive way. Rather, the school recognises that children learn differently and they want to give them freedom to find the best way for them. Children are actively involved in this process and can try out a variety of different ways of learning. The school day is organised in such a way that children have a wide variety of opportunities to engage in different ways of learning and of working alongside different children. Collaborative work is highly valued. All classes are mixed ability, although sometimes teachers will encourage particular students to work together – this relates to ability but also to motivation.

Hellerup School has to do the same national tests as other schools (the Danish system has apparently adopted some similar practices to the UK – national testing system, Her Majesty’s Inspectors). The school also has its own testing system for Danish and maths. The Head was clear that parents would only continue to send their children to the school if test results were good; although they value the ‘soft skills’, these are seen as extras. In addition to academic tests, students negotiate individual goals through dialogue with teachers. These can be academic, personal or social goals, and students are involved in self-assessing whether they have met these goals. These goals are taken seriously and are written into work books (and sometimes on walls, making them more public). It appears as if students genuinely self-direct these goals, although this process warrants further exploration.

Hellerup School was at one time named as one of the flagship schools for the charity Human Scale Education http://www.hse.org.uk/hse/ This school is not perfect and it certainly has its challenges – and these challenges seem to be increasing as the Danish education system closes in on freedom.

If you are interested in knowing more, then please come to the Freedom to Learn event in Oxford on 12 March 2015 – we are lucky to have been able to bring the Head of Hellerup to the UK to share his experiences and reflections on the school. The event is free, but places are limited. Book now at www.freedomtolearnproject.com

 Any comments on this post very welcome.

Feb 20, 2015

Trampolines in Universities?

Posted: February 20, 2015

Tecnologico do Monterrey is a high-ranking university in Monterrey, Mexico. I was based on this campus last week as part of a British Council research project (‘dialogue and transformative learning in STEM education’). In many ways, the campus feels conventional in that it has a library, lecture halls, science labs, cafes and shops. Yet there is something that feels different about it too.

In contrast to the formality of many British universities, Tec de Monterrey has deliberately set out to encourage creativity and innovation. It wants students (and staff) to push themselves into new ways of thinking. One way it has done this is through building the Innov-action Centre (pictured). This building is designed to feel free-flowing and flexible. There is brightly coloured furniture. There is a pool table, a trampoline, a table-tennis table. There are pop-up tents, large cushions and swings. There are spaces where students can work on their own or in small groups. The idea behind the centre is to provide opportunities for inspiration. If they are struggling with an idea, they can move around and do something different, and then return to their work. By having the freedom to move around and be creative, they can think differently (or so the argument goes).

In many ways, the Innov-action Centre reminded me of pictures I have seen of Google’s offices. Whilst I was there, I saw students sitting on the big cushions and working in small groups. I saw some using the pool table as a normal table. I did not see anyone using the trampoline, the swing, or the table-tennis table. It made me wonder whether these facilities are ever used or whether they just give the impression of ‘creativity’.

My university in the UK has recently re-designed its library. The new building looks amazing, and it also contains brightly coloured furniture and small working spaces. Students and staff really like the new space. Yet it still looks much more organised and more formal that the Innov-action Centre.

Are there any universities in the UK which have deliberately designed their space so as to encourage creativity and innovation? And if so, do students actually use these facilities? If you know of any that have done this, it would be great to hear from you.



Feb 11, 2015

Freedom to Learn – want to get involved?

Posted: February 11, 2015

The Freedom to Learn Project is an international cross-sector research project that wants to  find out what happens when schools and universities, across a range of countries, make a decision to operate differently from the norm. Do radical and alternative ways of working have a positive impact on students? Do they reduce social and educational inequality? Do they offer an insight into how to improve education for all? The Freedom to Learn Project is an all-encompassing name which incorporates several separate but interlinked projects. They are all concerned with freedom, autonomy and social justice.

I am co-founder of The Freedom to Learn Project, alongside Dr Catherine Montgomery, also at the University of Hull. We have managed to draw together a fabulous bunch of people to help drive this project forward (see website for details) but we are still looking for more.

It is exciting to be working with people in schools and universities, across several countries, to explore these issues. Do you want to be involved?

Please check out our website and Facebook page:



Look forward to hearing from you.


Feb 2, 2015

Free Schools – is there even a chink of light?

Posted: February 2, 2015

The Coalition Government’s ‘Free Schools’ are highly controversial and many left-leaning academics and educationalists have argued that they have been a move in the wrong direction (Anti Academies Alliance 2011, Benn 2012, Ball 2013). In this climate, it seems risky to even question whether they might provide some exciting opportunities for educationalists.

 Nonetheless, I have been drawn to Free Schools for two main reasons, both of which I would be interested to debate with others:

  • First, when Free Schools were originally launched as part of the Academies Act 2010, Michael Gove was clear that there was no single blueprint, no formula, and that they would be open to a range of models. To be fair, this seems to have played out to some extent. We now have Free Schools run by the co-operative movement, youth workers and Everton Football Club. This level of diversity offers some interesting alternatives as part of, rather than separate from, the state education system. Since I do not believe that one system could ever to be designed to fit all young people, genuine alternatives seem important

  • Second, Alternative Provision Free Schools (AP Free Schools) are of particular interest to me because, when underpinned by the values of youth and community work, and staffed by youth workers working alongside teachers, as some of the new providers are, there could be real improvements in the educational offer for students who have been failed by the system. For those of us who work directly with children and young people who are written off as ‘disengaged’ or ‘challenging’, this issue is critical. Through the Free Schools policy, young people who have been excluded from school will, at last, get the same funding as those remaining in mainstream provision

 I accept that Free Schools are now part of an increasingly fragmented and fractured education system; one in which parents with social and cultural capital can exploit to their own advantage. It is tempting, therefore, to cast all Free Schools aside and argue that there is not, in any circumstance, a justification for them. However, I believe that Free Schools came in different guises, and as such, it is overly simplistic to dismiss them all.

One thing I am sure about is that Free Schools will be hotly debated during this General Election campaign. What do you think? Please share your comments.


I have published peer-reviewed papers and chapters which you might be interested to read:

Hope, Max A. (2015) Alternative Provision Free Schools: educational fireworks or sparks of optimism for excluded young people (forthcoming book chapter).

Hope, Max A. (2012) Localism, Decentralisation and Free Schools – is there a green light for a radical alternative within England’s state education system? International Studies in Educational Administration.Volume 40, Issue 1. Pages 89-102.

Hope, Max A. (2012) Youth Work and State Education. Should Youth Workers apply to set up a Free School?Youth and Policy. Number 109. Pages 60-70.