Parents take initiative to set up alternative school in Kortrijk

Summary

’TVier follows the century-old teaching principles of Celestin Freinet to prepare its pupils for a 21st-century future

Burning ambition

Preparing children for a 21st-century world requires a 21st-century education. That’s why a small group of parents in Kortrijk have taken the initiative in setting up a new secondary school based on the philosophy of French educational reformer Celestin Freinet. The school, called ’tVier, will open in September with 53 pupils.

The name means “the fire” in local West Flanders dialect, and is a reference to the ancient Greek essayist Plutarch, who is credited with the saying “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. According to the new school’s co-ordinator, Jorge Cottyn, its name reflects a belief in spreading education and igniting a love for learning.

’TVier is the result of a parent-led initiative seeking a different approach in education. Not just to prepare their children for an unknown future in an increasingly competitive and complex world, but to help them become thriving individuals with the necessary creativity to solve future challenges with more limited resources.

With educators and other interested parties, they researched the various systems and options and concluded that Freinet was closest to their ideal. “Project work and learning at your own pace are two of our new school’s spearheads,” says Cottyn. “Everything is based on the latest scientific insights about what really works in education.”

Direct experience

Freinet’s teaching methods date from a century ago. How did an army dropout turned pacifist create an educational model that is still relevant today? The short answer is field trips and a printing press.

Freinet felt that students learned better by directly experiencing ideas within a context and with a set purpose. In Freinet’s time – in the 1920s – children would regularly leave the classroom to conduct field trips. They would also compose their own works on a printing press and discuss and edit them as a group before presenting them as a team effort. These newspapers were exchanged with those from other schools and gradually the group texts replaced conventional school books. 

Everything is based on the latest scientific insights about what really works in education

- Jorge Cottyn

With its emphasis on inquiry-based learning in smaller groups, the Freinet Modern School Movement is actively practised in many countries across the world. In Flanders, the movement is not exactly new. The first schools were set up in the 1970s in Ghent by pioneers in education looking for a more inclusive way to teach a newly multicultural and diverse group of youngsters. Today the region has a well-established network of 92 Freinet schools, mostly pre- and primary schools, of which 14 are in Ghent. Only a handful offer secondary education.

The aim of ’tVier is to offer a system more in sync with the requirements of the modern world, where creative problem solving skills aren’t generated by simple knowledge retention. Pupils learn in small groups and work on projects. Teachers are known as supervisors, and as well as being experts in their own field, they are also responsible for pupil guidance.

Close attention is paid to pupils’ personal development and the development of social skills. Respect for diversity, the environment and a democratic platform for parents and students to participate in are part of the school’s core identity. 

Important choices

Secondary education in Flanders is divided into four general types. Each type consists of a set of different directions that may vary from school to school. What doesn’t vary, however, is the age at which a child has to decide its future direction: 12 years old.

Unlike in regular education, ’tVier doesn’t require first-year pupils to make that choice right away. The opportunity to delay this important decision drew many parents and children to the new school.

“About a third of the 53 pupils come from Freinet primary schools in Kortrijk and the surrounding towns,” says Cottyn, “but many others enrolled because we offer a broad first grade in which pupils can really discover their own talents and interests. It’s only in the second half of the second year that they will be expected to make a focused and positive choice for what they do next.”

Many people enrolled because we offer a broad first grade in which pupils can really discover their own talents and interests

- Jorge Cottyn

The school aims to serve a mix of children from different backgrounds, but for now the student body is not a genuine reflection of the diversity in Kortrijk. “At the moment, pupils with a multicultural background are the exception,” says Cottyn. “This is unfortunate and we intend to take specific actions next year to reach a wider target group.”

No matter how new or different its approach, some things are still rather conventional. ’tVier follows the Catholic curriculum with its emphasis on Latin and religious studies. 

Cottyn: “We would have preferred to set up an autonomous school but the costs are too high. When we showed our draft concept paper to various educators in Kortrijk, the Catholic school group Rhizo was very supportive of our ideas and gave us the guarantees to realize our project.”

Tailored learning

Lut de Smet had no problems deciding where to send her 12-year-old son, Rens. “I’ve taught in higher education for 10 years and encountered 18-year-olds who would wait for me to tell them what to do next,” she says. “In Freinet, students are taught from the start how to work independently.”

Rens went to a traditional school before changing to a Freinet school at the age of 10. There he started by focusing on the things he could do well. With the confidence gained by doing things well he was then coached into the topics he was struggling with, which had a positive effect.

Marie-Eve Bossu is a teacher at a “traditional” school in the Kortrijk area. She agrees that independent learning is not a priority in regular education and adds that serious improvements overall are required to meet current as well as future needs. On average, classes in Flanders have 24 pupils.

“Small class instruction and individual attention with specific areas of interest are essential to quality education,” she says, “but because of class size and lack of resources it’s impossible to tailor learning to individual children. In traditional schools the quality of education is only as good as its teachers.”

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