Classrooms for the 21st Century: Geographies of Alternative Education

By Jen Turner

On the 20th September, 15-year-old school girl Megan Stammers boarded a ferry bound for Calais with her maths teacher.  Far from any regular school trip, a European warrant was issued for the arrest of Jeremy Forrest, following allegations of a relationship that goes beyond the norms of student-teacher. A week later, the pair were found in Bordeaux, and Forrest taken into custody.  However, amid the searches and appeals for information which eventually led to the location of Megan’s whereabouts, these activities have highlighted fresh concerns about the child protections policies at their school – Bishop Bell Church of England in Eastbourne.

A BBC article reported that serious concerns had been raised months ago.  Two separate cases have involved Bishop Bell in recent years including that of PE teacher Robert Healy, who was jailed for seven years for starting a sexual relationship with two teenage pupils he groomed on social networking site Bebo; and Canon Gordon Rideout, who was a governor at the school until November last year despite management allegedly being aware of his suspension from the Church of England, and imminent trial for 38 child sex offences.  Nevertheless, Terry Boatwright, executive head teacher, said the school “takes safeguarding very seriously and the effectiveness of its safeguarding procedures is rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.”  Further investigation is likely to continue into whether these activities had any bearing on the Megan Stammers case.

In a broader sense, aside from the obvious controversy, these events raise some interesting politics for geographers and beyond.  The pressures upon both schools and pupils in our contemporary environment are ever-increasing, fuelled by such things as youngsters’ access to and immersion within media sources, and social and economic patterns in wider society.  In light of this, I question how well traditional education systems are meeting both the demands of students, but also the external pressures that society exerts upon them.

In March, Brian Wheeler reported how home schooling by the black community in the US is growing.  Predominantly a white phenomenon, an increasing number of black families are now also turning their back on the public school system and educating their children at home. Why? “There were lots of fights and people getting shot,” says Sonya Barbee, a single mother, who works full time, and home-schools her 11-year-old son, in the hope of rekindling his “love of learning”.  Clearly there is an emergent number of people interested in ‘alternative’ education; a category which Peter Kraftl calls for specific geographer interest in, in an early view article in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Kraftl attends specifically to “the emotional geographies that characterise homeschoolers’ experiences, where feelings of intimacy and love are, in large measure, constitutive of what makes homeschooling an ‘alternative’ space to mainstream schools” (2012, 2).

In light of these events, interesting questions are raised about the benefits of the more intimate spatial environment homeschooling can provide, and whether contemporary concerns could be muted in these alternative classrooms for the 21st century.

 Peter Kraftl, 2012, Towards geographies of ‘alternative’ education: a case study of UK home schooling families, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00536.x

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