School’s out......except when it’s in.
The yells, bells, crashes and bangs that resound around St. Edmund’s on a Saturday morning are as teeth-rattling as they are any other day of the week, with one important difference. Saturday mornings are now optional at school, and every child you see in on that day is there for one reason only: they want to be.
With well over half the school in regular attendance every Saturday, that’s a remarkable endorsement of a brave innovation that the Headmaster introduced back in 2003: the results have been extraordinary.
Optional school is a recognition that the halcyon (at least, for some) days of double science on a Saturday were no longer in step with current thinking. Family life has changed, with parents happy to surrender their children to the school for the working days of the week, but with the strong view that weekends should be a time for relaxing. In turn, the calendar had long been working against Saturday school with four or five exeats a term, starting on a Friday afternoon.
Adam Walliker (the Headmaster at St. Edmund’s) comments: “We also found that other schools wanted to play mid-week matches. Saturday was also the first choice of any school hosting an Open day, and any aged Aunt celebrating a birthday. The end result was that compulsory Saturdays were an uphill struggle, and the cause of increasingly inventive alibis about why Freddie or Johnnie wouldn’t be in!”
The Headmaster had a firm view, however, that if Saturday were to change it should be re-created, not abolished. The idea of a five-day prep school was not acceptable to him, the governors or the majority of the parents; nor was any compromise in the quantity or quality of education that the children receive.
Careful planning overcame the logistical nightmare of re-allocating every lesson into the working week in an even, manageable way. The priority was to make sure that no child would miss so much as a minute of academic work. With this accomplished, the real challenge now lay ahead: the task of making Saturdays at St. Edmund’s so compelling, the toughest critics of all would actually ask to come in.
Designing The Programme
It was a challenge that fell largely to Toby Wright (Deputy Head - Pastoral). He recalls: “There was a lot of pressure to get it right. Having scrapped lessons on a Saturday it would have been virtually impossible to re-instate them. But the real challenge was to get a good and varied number of children that would give Saturdays a real buzz.”
Toby took to his new guise as impresario with relish, designing a programme of activities that was inspiring, challenging – and plain good fun.
So, starting in the Michaelmas term of 2003, the early pioneers of Saturday school found that History had given way to horse riding; science to scuba diving; maths to modelmaking. Indeed, over the weeks and months some 25 different activities included go-karting and wide games, chess and water sliding, cooking and cycling skills, shooting and golf.
Toby comments: “The great thing about a Saturday is that it means we can offer activities in much more depth than we could during the week. Children have time to go riding at Mayfair Riding School, fishing at Hammer Trout Farm, wall climbing at PGL or shooting at Bisley.”
The programme has other benefits as well. He adds: “Educationally, discovering new things, challenging yourself and developing new talents brings enormous benefits. And to see a child who may be struggling in class during the week then bake the best pizza in the group on a Saturday works wonders for their confidence.” Some children also use the time to extend their work during the week, for example by building up their portfolios in art or, come exam time, by getting in some extra revision.