In October 2021, Shonogh Pilgrim, WE Director of Secondary, went to Oppi in Switzerland. In this blog, WE hear her thoughts and reflections from the event.
So many things in life happen in an almost serendipitous fashion. A chance encounter with someone you never dreamed you’d meet; reading a book that helps you to make sense of the world; finding an organisation that is doing the work you most desire; being invited to an event that you didn’t even know existed.
Earlier this year I recorded a podcast with Jenny Anderson from Learnit about my experiences of leading a school during the pandemic years and how agency and relationships had been the bedrock of our journey. Lord Jim Knight, our previous chair of Whole Education, heard that podcast and invited me to be part of an ‘unconference’ called Oppi.
The concept is simple: instead of designing a conference with expert inputs you curate the guestlist and give the people who come the space to create the conference themselves. A simple idea but so powerful. And that’s how this working-class girl found herself in Switzerland surrounded by the most amazing people having the most amazing conversations about education (and pinching herself because it seemed impossible that it was happening to her).
In an informal session led by Yaacov Hecht and Yuli Tamir, who work in teacher education in Israel and are interested in how their work needs to change to produce the teachers our students need, we were asked to consider the question:
‘What can our education system learn from Oppi?’
As I listened to the contributions being made by others it struck me that there were three things about Oppi that should underpin any education system. Let me share them with you — I’d love to know your thoughts.
- The greeting on arrival. A warm hug from our host and a sense of being welcome and valued regardless of who we were or how well we were known.
- The programme. A careful mix of activities, some pre-planned, others evolving in line with our interests. All of them there to help us explore ideas and to move on in our understanding. Some of the activities were things I would never have imagined wanting to do or in fact being comfortable doing. However, the culture of the event made it seem not only possible but normal to try them out.
- There was choice. Knowing that you could go to the sessions you would find most interesting, that you could offer to host conversations that mattered to you; that you could take time to sit and think, go for a walk, have a coffee, take a nap.
And that for me is what we could all learn from Oppi. Imagine what it would be like if every child arrived at school and was welcomed as though they were the most important person in the world: valued because of who they are. I wonder how that would change how they approached the rest of their day; perhaps not immediately but if the welcome happened with the same warmth every day until it broke through their tough exterior. Would they be more likely to be open to the opportunities on offer if they felt worth something and capable? Would that help them to take the risk of trying and so find the things that they are good at rather than shying away or fighting against the things that confirm to them that school isn’t for people like them? What if you could then add in the element of choice? I don’t know about you but I’m always happier when I feel like I have some sort of control over what is happening to me; much less stressed too.
It’s so easy to read something like this and immediately consign it to the scrap heap of ‘it could never work’. But what if it could? What if we could exploit Tim Brighouse’s gaps in the hedges of our system and find a way to put every child right at the centre of their own education. What would be the principles on which you would build your school? How do they differ to the ones I’ve picked up from Oppi?