Halswell school with an alternate approach to teaching

DIFFERENT: Seven Oaks School teach Mike Rea centre, with McKenzie Drage 13, left, Devon Neale 12, Millie Palmer 10, Charlotte Watson 11, Alena Harvey 13 and Hana McDonald 10. PHOTO: Anan Zaki

A year since moving to Halswell, Seven Oaks School is still in the process of building – but it wants people to change perceptions that it’s giving children too much freedom.

The school, previously located in Opawa, has a modest roll of 37, but plans to grow and develop a high school and pre-school once construction is finished.

Pupils at the school have a curriculum focused around the individual needs of the child with a strong emphasis on mental well-being. And principal Molly Watson believes it is the way of the future.

The teaching focuses around the concept of social and emotional learning.

“Social and emotional learning is teaching kids what feelings are, and to start to name their own feelings. It’s the work of getting to know what’s happening with you,” Ms Watson said.

Other schools had similar programmes, she said, but what sets the school “apart” from others is that social and emotional learning drives their curriculum.

But that doesn’t mean the school is ignoring the national curriculum.

“We follow the national curriculum, it’s a good document. We just don’t use it in a prescriptive way,” Ms Watson said.

Even though academic learning is not the primary driver of the curriculum, Seven Oaks pupils take part in the ‘progressive achievement test’, and the pupils score above the national average standards. Ms Watson pointed to science for their approach.

“We don’t have to guess how the brain works. We know when the brain matures, we know when the ideal time is to teach reading,” she said.

“We do start slower – year 1 and 2 classes are play-based. Things are offered, children can come when they are ready,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean there are no academic activities offered at that age.

“There might be a child who is five that wants to read, we’re not going to say no. If they are coming to it naturally, then we’re going to offer it,” Ms Watson said.

Another method taught at the school is called Feuerstein, a programme which teaches children how to learn.

“You’re not learning maths, but you’re learning how to learn maths,” Ms Watson said.

The programme is taught by Feuerstein specialist teacher Mike Rea.

“It’s about children learning how to help themselves, how to come to a problem and have solutions, to be able to find a starting point and ways through the problem,” Mr Rea said.

“So the children are learning to question and to think in a deeper way about the learning process so that eventually their brain becomes more efficient and can tackle any situation.”

Because each child has a personalised curriculum, the school places pupils with learning disabilities together in classes with pupils without disabilities.

Children with learning disabilities followed the Arrowsmith programme, which was aimed at improving cognitive function in children with learning disabilities.

Ten-year-old pupil Hana McDonald, who was in the Feuerstein programme, said she enjoyed her learning experience at the school.

“I enjoy having lots of choices in what you do. I used to go to Cashmere [Primary School] and here there are lots of other things apart from reading, writing and maths,” she said.

•Seven Oaks School was initially set up in Opawa in 2009, but purchased an 8ha site on Murphys Rd the following year and moved to the site in July

•The school has 37 pupils from years 1-8

•By 2026, the school wants to have 480 pupils and set up a pre-school and high school

•Class sizes are limited to 15 pupils

•The school’s chairman is Macpac founder Bruce McIntyre