Andrew Fisher, Head at Frensham Heights School in Surrey, on what makes a progressive education so relevant to today’s world

When Frensham Heights was established in 1925, as one of the first Progressive Schools, it was setting new standards by being co-educational, with no religious affiliation and with an emphasis on student involvement (today’s ‘student voice’). In addition, it was pacifist in response to the First World War. In 1925 it was seen as ‘radical’, and yet it catered for an extraordinary generation of students, many of whom went on to work in creative and performing arts, entrepreneurial endeavours and all manner of exciting careers. Soon after WW2, the school accepted 50 German refugee children, most of them Jewish survivors. This doubled the size of the school – half of pupils were Home Counties and half were recovering from unimaginable horrors.

The world that students face now is still living with the consequences of historical issues: continued conflict between faiths, global uncertainty and challenges in the environment. This world, their world, is in constant flux – and the challenge for the education system is to adapt to support them as they move into adulthood. Is a model which requires uniformity and assessment by memory testing fit for purpose? Should we not value open mindedness, creativity and passion? It’s almost as if the world has caught up with our founders – those values they embodied in 1925 are now being widely recognised as crucial in a child’s education.

Frensham Heights on progressive values in education
Skills other than learning and regurgitating facts are required in the modern world, says Frensham Heights Head Andrew Fisher

We believe deeply in responsibility, in how we as individuals behave towards each other and respect the world around us. Leadership requires integrity, morality and living as an example to others – our school does not give hierarchy to children, it expects leadership. As a progressive school, we continue to offer an environment that challenges the norms for education. We encourage our pupils to take responsibility for themselves. So, for example, Frensham Heights does not believe in detentions as an effective way of managing student behaviour. Our students have greater equality with their teachers (we are all on first name terms); they are open and challenging (as they should be), as well as being educated in all the performing and creative arts to encourage an appreciation of their own potential.

“It’s as if the world has caught up with our founders – values they embodied in 1925 are now recognised as crucial in a child’s education”

There is nothing I like more than a group of students meeting me to debate further change to the school or questioning the way in which we operate. Their student voice leads to real change and is never considered as immature or ill-informed. We ‘measure’ our students’ ten life skills alongside their academic progression. They value the personal development goals they set, developing a digital passport they can then take into future employment.

We pursue a cross-curricular model of teaching and learning which pushes aside divisions between subject areas. Our children learn outdoors, have time for reflection and are able to discover that they are dancers, or polymaths, or artists – they are the children who will become the essential adults of the future. There was a time when ‘progressive schools’ were derided for being too soft, too unstructured, but that freedom and bravery in education has never been more important.

Andrew Fisher was Head at Frensham Heights from 2004-2018 and returned this academic year to oversee the planned transition between Heads.

Frensham Heights

Further reading: Kew House School on delivering interconnected learning at GCSE