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An Education Transformation that Celebrates Learning

Photo credit: Ashley Church of England Primary School (
November 26, 2019

This past summer, I spent one and a half months volunteering at the Ashley Church of England Primary School, located outside of London in a small suburb called Walton-on-Thames. While I spent the majority of my time with the Year One classes, I got a chance to interact with many of the different actors there, including teachers, students, administrative staff, and parents. I was interested in immersing myself in a teaching environment to understand where education fit into my future career path. In university, I was fortunate to meet Richard Dunne, the Headteacher at Ashley, and have been enthralled with his work ever since. He is not an ordinary Headteacher; and Ashley is not an ordinary school. Through his leadership, Dunne has transformed Ashley into a beacon of progressive education centered on values and project-based learning, delivered through a lens of sustainability. 

Ashley is a state-funded school, meaning it is part of England’s public system, which provides free education to primary and secondary level students. As a state-funded school, it adheres to certain national standards, such as including English and Math in the core curriculum. Where it departs from the typical primary school prototype is in how curriculum is distributed and absorbed. Ashley is not solely about changing what children are learning, but rather, how they learn. The intent is not to neglect core subjects, but to express them more creatively. It represents a new pedagogy in the realm of education.  

A New Pedagogy for Education

Ashely’s pedagogy is rooted in Values-based Education, a program that aims to empower educational systems with an ethical foundation based on positive, universal human values. The values that Ashley has chosen provide a baseline for staff and students to approach learning — so that the entirety of the school is building on the same moral framework. These values are revisited daily throughout school life, and also singled out by term, to give deeper understanding of each one. Joy was the exemplary value during my time there – seemingly metaphorical for my experience. 

One of Dunne’s central goals is the contextualization of learning. A thematic approach is used. Specific themes are assigned to each year group, taking into consideration their cognitive level and their potential to gain a wider understanding of the world as a whole along with their place within it. I noticed three significant intentions from this style of learning. 

The themes are an overarching idea from which each subject could be taught. For example, for the half-term period during which I was working with the Year Ones, their theme was the seaside. They spent time writing stories about life underwater in English and learning about sea creatures found in rock pools in Science. However, it was not merely presented as a theme, but as a Learning Enquiry. A central question summating the theme was posed to the students: “Why do I like to be beside the seaside?” By expanding themes into Learning Enquiries, students are pushed to think critically and be inquisitive. 

At the end of the half term, the students produce a Great Work — an encompassing project demonstrating all that they have gained from their Learning Enquiry. For the Year Ones, this Great Work took the form of a live performance, complete with costumes, song, and short informative skits of their favorite seaside facts. The performance was their way of answering the question. More than that, it made their learning purposeful, as they worked towards a cumulative goal at the end of the half term that was more than a written exam. Placing importance on different skill sets as opposed to test writing supports holistic outcomes for a child’s learning. 

The most significant and exciting take-away that I saw in Dunne’s curriculum was the ever-present dedication to sustainability. The Learning Enquiries were all informed by themes that tied back to environmental issues, and I often witnessed teachers linking an understanding of sustainability into their daily lessons. Dunne put the connection between nature and learning at the forefront. In HRH The Prince of Wales’ 2010 book, Harmony: A New Way of Looking at our World, Dunne found further inspiration to use the seven key Harmony Principles to contextualize student learning. When the students understand what a harmonious connection to nature looks like, they begin to place themselves in the world. I saw them become animated about environmental issues, conscious of their impact on different ecosystems, and curious about the solutions they could champion. 

Ashley as a Living Example

Before coming into my time at Ashley, I was really excited by the alternative, progressive curriculum that I had heard so much about. However, some of what Dunne spoke about presented as intangible or abstract. It wasn’t until I spent time at the school that I realized just how this pedagogy could play out in practice. Ashley is a living example of Dunne’s work on the transformation of education. 

While teachers made an effort to draw links to sustainability in many lessons, specific classes and modules were dedicated to learning about one’s place in a healthy, natural world. The school grounds are trimmed with local vegetation, plots of wildflowers, a fruit tree orchard, and an allotment filled with organic vegetables, allowing the kids upfront viewing access to local plant growth during their lunch break. About once a week, the Year Ones headed out to one of the treed areas for Forest School — a chance to dig, build and innovate with what they could find in the dirt. I helped different year groups as they spent time gardening, cooking and beekeeping. Seamlessly, these lessons all fit between, and built on, Math and Science classes. 

The school also embraces sustainability in its institutional form. Children lead the monitoring of energy use, water use and food waste at the school, setting targets and competing for goals. Every morning, classes tallied the different transportation methods they used to get to school, celebrating eco-options such as walking or biking. Working closely with the head chef, Georgia Bailey, Dunne implemented a menu of freshly cooked and almost exclusively organic food (90%), which the children are fed for lunch every day. It is as local as possible, even using produce grown on school grounds. The children also comprise different councils, such as the food or eco-council, leading the way in innovative improvements to the school’s environmentalism. 

Classroom and Community

My time at Ashley was inspiring and the sense of community was palpable. The students were engaged, involved and creative. The teachers were passionate about education, and the parents I met were proud to be part of such a beautiful and comprehensive school. The students learn in a context-appropriate setting, encouraging them to continually engage in and be curious about the world beyond the classroom. They will always have a moral foundation and an understanding of their place in the natural world to ground and guide them. When the time comes for them to graduate from those classrooms, it follows that they will be more prepared and adaptable to face all the challenges of their wider community. Dunne has created a purposeful, intentional approach to education, putting one of the most pressing issues of our day — sustainability — at its forefront. It seems clear to me that the education experience is in need of a shift, and this environmentally aware, connected, exciting pedagogy would do well to lead the way.