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Meet the head of Sussex’s revolutionary new school

Atelier 21 is the UK's first all-through school inspired by the inquiry-based Reggio Emilia approach. Muddy meets head Hayley Peacock to find out more.

The world has changed dramatically in recent years – even before Covid rendered our daily lives almost unrecognisable. But while businesses and individuals have kept up with the pace, arguably schools haven’t changed a great deal in the past few decades.

The skills children will need to thrive in the future are different, and so schools need to be different too. This is the ethos that led to the creation of Atelier 21 Future School, a brand new educational offering based in Broadfield Park, Pease Pottage opposite the K2 sports centre and Tilgate Park.

Atelier 21 opened the doors of its Grade II listed 19th century mansion last September and already has 50 pupils on roll, with a further 35 set to join in September. At full capacity it will accommodate 120 students aged up to 16. Around 50% of its pupils have come from other private schools, and the other 50% from the state sector.

Head and founder Hayley Peacock has a track record of educational success with Little Barn Owls, a highly successful chain of early years settings that won Nursery World‘s UK Nursery Group of the Year award this year. It was through working in early years she discovered the approach of the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy and was inspired to create a school that reflected this inquiry-driven ethos. She describes an educational visit to the area as deeply transformative in changing her values and how she saw the world.

With Atelier 21 she wants to blend of some of the best and most progressive approaches to education she’s discovered in the last 12 years. As well as Reggio Emilia, the school has drawn inspiration from Forest Schools, project-based learning, democratic education, the Montessori approach, cross-curricular approaches and Ms Peacock’s own values around entrepreneurship. The school is made up of five core areas, all of which combine into its unique ethos.

  1. Mastery workshops – lessons, to you and me, but Ms Peacock says whilst children at many schools are very good at learning how to be taught, the focus academically at Atelier 21 is on learning how to learn and accumulating skills for the future. The teaching ratio is around 1:10, with two class teachers per class of 20 children.
  2. Passion Pays visits from inspirational speakers, ranging from champion dressage riders to professional special effects makeup artists and many others who are following their dreams and making a living doing what they love.
  3. Wild Fridays. Every Friday the entire school goes outside for the majority of the day to learn in the great outdoors. As well as teaching core subjects physically and outside, the school runs adventure days exploring activities like wild swimming, rock climbing, Forest School, raft building, kayaking and more. The school has just taken over a private forest and the children are currently competing to design a permanent Base Camp for everybody to use.
  4. Self-directed learning is timetabled into the school day. Children choose what they’d like to learn and become good at, and they are encouraged to be goal-motivated so they can track their progress. All goals are considered valid – whether it’s learning about World War II, setting up a business or learning how to do 100 keepy-uppies.
  5. Humanities are taught through cross-curricular projects via a whole-school study based around a broad theme. Classes break into collaborative groups to deep-dive into areas of interest, to create a whole-school project that is presented at the end of the term in an event called The Big Share. Recent themes have included ‘My Body and My Brain’ and ‘Rights and Responsibilities’. The children are assessed through portfolio work until formal exams begin.

Ms Peacock questions why children are learning the same thing every year, saying parents and families are becoming aware through having to homeschool their children over lockdown that in many cases, children are learning the same things we all learned 30 years ago.

At Atelier 21 she says the focus is equally on what children want to learn, what sparks their curiosity and what questions they have, as it is on the core academic content taught through the curriculum. It’s this dual focus she believes makes the school unique and of interest to parents looking for a viable alternative to state or traditional independent schools, that will arm children with the skills and attributes they need for the future.

Keen to find out more about Atelier 21? Full Muddy review coming soon and in the mean time, you can book a slot at the virtual Open Event on 20 March.

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