Putting Design Principles at the Heart of a School

James Wetz

I was involved in an advisory capacity during the gestation of Gesher, and at its birth. Asked for this journal to reflect on that period in this extraordinary schoolʼs development, I am driven back to my own belief system -to what the education project is all about. In summary, there are three questions or ʻasksʼ that I would put to all those who work in our schools.

The first: Reflect on how important relationships between staff and young people are

The first challenge to historical models of schooling is that we should reflect on just how important the staff who work with young people in our schools are for each and every young person, and in particular for those more challenging young people who find it difficult to engage with their schooling. This leads at the outset to an emphasis on four key ideas:

  1. That relationships should be the building blocks of school design
  2. That we all learn in and through relationships
  3. That we cannot teach children we do not know and know well
  4. That teaching is a ‘relational activity’ based on ‘educational tasksʼ.


The second: Take a holistic view of education

The second challenge is that we see young peopleʻs educational journey from early
childhood to young adulthood in a more holistic way and, additionally, that we ensure
that there are three equally valued and interrelated components to the educational
design, namely:

  • The importance of relevant learning
  • The personal and social development of young people
  • The professional care and intervention we provide for more vulnerable young people.


The third: View building resilience and emotional capital as key toeducational provision

The third consideration is that we should, quite simply, view emotional capital and resilience as being a crucial part of a teacherʼs role and a schoolʼs mission.


How do these three features relate to Gesher School?

One of the first conversations I had with the schoolʼs founders, Ali and Sarah, was around establishing the core values and principles that would be central to the design of their school – what would be the conceptual framework and belief system that should inform the design of the school they wished to create?

The four underlying principles that were to inform policy and practice in this new school built on the three belief statements set out above, have remained constant to the design and working of the school over time.

They are:

  • The importance of relationships in the education of young people
  • The importance of a holistic approach to the education of young people
  • The importance of building resilience in young people
  • The importance of responding to each young personʻs needs and aspirations


It felt important from the very early design of the school to create a constant emphasis for school leaders, be they the Founders of the school or the Headteacher, to see themselves as architects and designers of the school community in its deepest sense. These design principles would be meaningless without those leaders living them and supporting practice that had these principles at their heart.

“We need to see young peopleʼs educational journey from early childhood to young adulthood in a more holistic way.”


So what could this new school, Gesher School, and other aspirational settings look like if these core principles informed policy and practice and were evidenced in the school?

The key design features of a school that I believe are essential have little to do with buildings and technology provision, important though these are. Rather, they are very specifically those aspects of the school which give explicit meaning and expression to the core principles of a school. Let me share a few of these that I hold to be important for all schools, which have been embedded in Gesher School and I hope continue to be so as they evolve into an all through provision. Whilst I cannot explore these features in detail here, they are for me essentials of what outstanding schools should demonstrate.

They include:

  • The importance of ritual
  • The importance of celebration
  • A listening culture with and between young people
  • Giving teachers time to think about young people
  • Talking together about young people
  • Planning collaboratively to meet the learning needs of young people
  • Paying deep attention to transitions and the managing of endings
  • The importance of roles and boundaries
  • Putting in place effective professional supervision and role consultation for teachers
  • For teachers to have a therapeutic disposition informed by training in attachment and trauma informed approaches
  • The importance of human scale and the primacy of relationships
  • An emphasis on the importance of living in community.


Concluding thought
This is an urgent call for us to set aside preconceived notions of how schooling should be and to think deeply about what it could be or would be if it were to work well for those young people who are currently finding school so difficult to engage with.


Case studies of really well designed schools

As part of authoring and presenting a Channel 4 Dispatches programme titled ‘The Children Left Behind’, I was able to film in the small school movement pilot schools in Boston and New York. Here I met two quite remarkable school leaders and schools. Peggy Kemp, Headteacher at Fenway High School, held staff meetings every day of the week with the total commitment of the staff team and asked just one question of them at the end of every day: ‘Who has not been seriously engaged in learning with us today?ʼ On the day of my visit, when invited to the staff meeting that day and in response to this daily enquiry from the Headteacher, teachers raised the needs of three young people: a boy who had ‘kicked off’ in a bout of extreme anger during the morning session; a normally confident and engaged girl who had seemed sad and withdrawn; and a boy who had missed two weeks of schooling because of domestic upheaval and who was clearly not coping with the work.

What was important, though, was not just their identification as young people of concern on that particular day but the immediate responses of the staff team: “I live near the family of the boy who ‘kicked off in anger’ and will visit on my way home”; that they as a staff group would meet and greet the withdrawn girl with greater love and affection the next day; and that an immediate tutor intervention was necessary to enable the boy who had missed two weeks of school a chance to catch up and cope with his programme.

Linda Nathan was school leader at Boston Arts Academy, which teaches the curriculum through the arts. Linda sees relationships as the essential building blocks of her school and stresses that teachers just cannot be ignorant about the lives of the young people they teach. She sees the need for teachers to show unconditional commitment – persistent care – that the young people should know that the adults will never give up on them, whatever they do. This is the culture of her high-achieving school, where attendance rates are high and exclusions almost unheard of. The staff in her school had a commitment and an understanding to think deeply about the needs of young people who present with challenging behaviour, by providing and affirming a holistic approach to education and seeing relationships as the building blocks necessary for any school if young people were to thrive. There was an understanding that recognised that disaffection from school is often rooted in a lack of early affection; that very challenging behaviour is often a communication about need from children who are acting out due to remembered hurt of earlier neglect, abuse, loss, or separation.



  • Professional Prompt Questions
  • What principles are your school currently built on?
  • If you could design your school from scratch, what principles would you want to guide the way you set up your school? Can you think of a way to embed them where you are now?
  • Is the building of positive relationships between staff and students explicitly designed into the way your school operates? If not, how could it be?
  • Looking at Jamesʼ list of outstanding school features — how many do you recognise in your own school? Would you like to implement any of these?



James worked for over 30 years in state education, 16 as a secondary school Headteacher at both St. Laurence School Bradford on Avon and Cotham School in Bristol. He retired from the role of the Principal of Cotham School and the North Bristol Post 16 Centre in 2004. Subsequently, he has been National Director of Human Scale Education and co-founder of the Consortium for Emotional Well Being in Schools. He has published widely, most notably ʻUrban Village Schools – putting relationships at the heart of secondary school organisation and designʼ, which was published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in November 2009 and launched at the RSA in London. In 2008 he authored and presented a ʻDispatchesʼ Programme for Channel 4 titled ʻChildren Left Behindʼ based on field work in the small school movement in Denmark and the ʻPilot Schoolsʼ in Boston and New York in the US. He is currently an advisor or trustee of multiple innovative educational and cultural ventures. He is married to Diana, with three children and eight grandchildren.