Bridging the learning gap

XP School Go Outward Bound 2

XP School in Doncaster opened its doors for the first time to 50 Year 7 students in 2014 but not before they all participated in a four day residential programme in August that year at The Outward Bound Trust’s Aberdovey Centre in Wales. Why? The school wanted all of its students to be ‘school ready’ and prepared from the outset for a new and different way of learning.

In 2012 Gwyn ap Harri, CEO of XP School Trust in Doncaster was in San Diego visiting High Tech High school, a charter school which practices “project-based learning”, or PBL. This school recommended that Gwyn should also meet with Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer for Expeditionary Learning (EL) in the U.S.A. Little did he guess then that this school visit and his meeting with Ron Berger would lead to a total overhaul of his professional life resulting in opening a new school in 2014 and that by 2016 he would be in the process of creating another school XP East School opening in Doncaster in 2017.

About Expeditionary Learning Schools

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Operating since 1993 in the USA and now with over 150 schools covering thirty states and the District of Columbia, Expeditionary Learning schools (EL) are characterised by ‘learning expeditions’ - project-based, interdisciplinary, group learning experiences, which eschew subject-based, traditional teaching methods and emphasise meaningful, in-depth learning processes. Assessment comes through cumulative products, public presentations and portfolios with tasks requiring perseverance, fitness, craftsmanship, imagination, self-discipline, and significant achievement.

The underlying belief is that children learn best through engaging with their emotions and that they require challenge and full support to realise their potential. This, it is argued, doesn’t happen automatically, and not necessarily always in a classroom, so EL schools facilitate situations where adventure and the unexpected can take place. The idea is that if children can overcome their fears, they can do far more than they ever believed they could.

EL works with a number of key design principles - ‘The Having of Wonderful Ideas’ emphasises curiosity and creativity, while ‘The Responsibility for Learning’ balances personal discovery with collective responsibility for the process. This sense of the social is driven home in the focus on ‘Empathy and Caring’ where both teachers and students are valued and where mutual trust is a key component. Adding to these foundations, the principle of ’Success and Failure’ not only celebrates achievement and success, but insists that students benefit from their failures, so that they learn to persevere when things don’t go well. Something which Outward Bound courses include in their learning process. ‘Collaboration and Competition’ teaches personal and group development, so that the student is not in competition with their peers, but rather tries to outshine themselves, to better their own successes, to reach their own standards of excellence.

A number of other principles, including ‘Diversity and Inclusion’, ‘The Natural World’, ‘Solitude and Reflection’ and ‘Service and Compassion’ reinforce the ethos of care, individual and group strength, alongside love of the natural environment and a sense of stewardship towards the earth. Since the schools are built on the idea that we learn better through the differences between us, learning groups are always heterogeneous, rather than streamed.

Kurt Hahn – ELS and The Outward Bound Trust

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Though ELS chimed loudly with Gwyn ap Harri, he did not at first make the connection to The Outward Bound Trust. He discovered that EL schools were explicitly founded on the philosophy of Kurt Hahn, the German educator who was the co-founder of The Outward Bound Trust in the UK in the 1940s. The Outward Bound approach had been exported to the USA and became the inspiration for EL. So when Gwyn ap Harri realised the connection, not only did his attraction to High Tech High’s methods become explicable, he also realised that Outward Bound’s philosophy had, for him, come full circle.

Back in the UK, Gwyn ap Harri got together with Andy Sprakes, then Head teacher at Campsmount Academy, Doncaster and encouraged him to visit San Diego to see for himself. Four years on and the pair are reflecting on the success of their first two years as CEO and Executive Head respectively of the XP school in Doncaster.

XP School

XP opened in 2014 and has a deliberately small student intake of 50 per year, divided into 2 groups. Students are chosen randomly, not on the basis of catchment area, class or ability, therefore fully working with the EL principles of diversity and inclusion. Adapted for a UK context, XP’s character values are those of ‘Courage, Respect, Craftsmanship & Quality, Compassion and Integrity’. Added to this is the relentless focus on “character growth and beautiful work”. The National Curriculum is delivered through interdisciplinary ‘learning expeditions’ where students work on projects chosen for their relevance to their local community, with the finished products designed to affect positive change. Key to all of it is a sense of community and common purpose and so it is vitally important to the school that children begin the school year totally ready for seven years of working together in a new way.

The school year has unconventional term times compared to other UK Academies. This consists of 5 terms of 8 weeks with a 2-week holiday in between and a 4 week holiday in the summer. This arrangement allows for the school year to begin in August and for new Year 7 intakes the first thing that happens is students board a bus for a four day residential course at The Outward Bound Centre in Aberdovey, Wales. This sounds fairly daunting, considering that the random allocation and small intake means it is very unlikely that students will know one another, but the decision is a purposeful one. These four days will be the first introduction to ‘learning expeditions’ and prepares students for their school year ahead.

The first learning expedition – The Outward Bound Trust

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In Aberdovey, the question ‘What is Crew?’ is introduced and becomes the focus of learning and team work for the whole four days. Transition from Primary to Secondary school courses are run regularly by The Trust, with the aim of supporting young people as they move into secondary education. Learning Outcomes include increasing awareness of the students’ skills and abilities, improving confidence, self-belief, and the ability to listen and communicate effectively. Exercises designed to increase resilience, determination, independence, responsibility, accountability and time-management are practiced in a wilderness setting where students’ awareness of and concern for the natural environment is part and parcel of the overall experience.An essential element at XP is its pastoral system, which is built on the idea of ‘Crews’. Students are put into a group of 12 or 13 - their crew - of which they will be a member for the duration of their time at XP. This is no mere lip service, the crews spend 45 minutes each school day together in quality, in-depth discussion and activity.

Outward Bound transition courses are tailored to the specific needs of individual schools so that in the case of XP school, the learning outcomes are woven into school-specific principles. For XP students all activities are done in crews such as gorge walking, overnight expeditions and kayaking. Reflections on the days activities allow students to explore ‘appreciations’ of individuals who have excelled within the crew that day. This reflective experience is very powerful. As Gwyn ap Harri explains: “Those four days are worth at least six months work in school. As experienced teachers, we see Year 7s and see how quickly they form purposeful, positive relationships with peers and teachers - it’s unbelievable! Every student has a voice. It’s not just the case of an Outward Bound residential, then back in school with no connection - it’s all connection. It’s intense and experiential. A powerful culture is established.”

Staff, Outward Bound instructors and students use the week to set expectations for their entire school career.

Phil Nichol, Senior Instructor and Operations Manager at Aberdovey centre who lead the first XP School course comments: “During their week with us we challenged students on any behaviours which did not tie in to the school ethos and reminded them of the key ‘character traits’ which form the cornerstone of everything they will be expected to do in school. Explicitly and implicitly, these character traits guide their school career as well as their character development. The end result, seen during the presentation on the last day, is a tangible journey from a group of somewhat disjointed individuals from different primary feeder schools to a crew looking forward to the exciting new education experience they are about to embark on.”

What of the young people who experience this rite of passage? Inevitably, not all children are open to the challenges, but it can be a life-changing week.

Mary, a Year 7 student in 2014 comments: “I was terrified to go on the Outward Bound trip … I cried so much on the ride to Wales that they had to stop the bus. But we got there and had to climb and get out on the ocean and everything, I was braver than I thought I was. I’m kind of a different person now.”

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Another student Amman now in Year 8 comments: “We do better work here because of the Outward Bound spirit. That means you push yourself past what you think you can do, and you push everyone else, too. None of us have ever worked this hard.”

XP School has yet to have a full OFSTED inspection, but they have received enthusiastic feedback from the inspectors who have visited so far. One of them said “I can’t believe I’m talking to 12 year olds!” A parallel, separate, autonomous but linked school, called XP East is currently being built, so that in August 2017, 100 students will be off to the Outward Bound Centre in Aberdovey to engage in the process of transitioning from primary to secondary and preparing to be ready for their new school and the year of learning ahead.

The original version of this article featured in Education Today Magazine – July 2016 issue