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Poggio d’Oro – Hill of Gold

Poggio d’Oro is a small, progressive materna and primaria family educational community located in Montalcino, Siena, Italy.

How was it established?

Poggio d’Oro was set up by a radical mother of two, Silvia Cesarano with her friends Claudia Mason and Amy Doust in order to offer children an alternative to the state provided education in the local areas.  It was inspired by different educational influences in Italy and various parts of the world. Poggio D’oro builds on pedagogies such as Montessori, Steiner, Reggio Emilia, Forest Schools and Democratic schools.

What does the family school look like?

Poggio d’Oro is a community based association, offering children educational experiences within a small, nurturing community. The association runs out of a house located close to Montalcino and is surrounded by vineyards and olive trees. The materna school, for children ages 2 to 6 exists alongside the primaria school, for children aged 6 to 11. The kitchen and outside spaces are shared and there is flexible use of the classroom spaces, although each school has its own autonomous base. A workshop area downstairs is used by both groups for art, ceramics, woodwork and other workshops.

At Poggio D’Oro we aim to create an environment in which children feel safe and happy and are able to experience the joy of learning, guided by the teachers around them.

Key Principles on which the school was founded

Play, Discover, Learn

Exploration

At Poggio D’Oro children learn at their own pace, with a focus on exploring and following their own interests.

Communication

We believe that communication is fundamental to development and we actively encourage children to discuss decisions and share their viewpoints.

Nature

We believe that spending time in nature supports children to grow in confidence. The outdoors is our ultimate classroom where children can learn from the real world and give themselves the space to explore responsibility. We take the children outside for lessons or nature walks regularly.

Expression, creativity and play

Creativity and an emphasis on self expression are core to our philosophy; our environment is a safe and nurturing space in which children are always encouraged to express their emotions.

The imagination, of the children and adults working with them underpins all of our learning, through diverse artistic and musical content and a strong emphasis on playing.

Learning

Poggio D’Oro is committed to creating learning experiences that are underpinned by educational touchpoints in the fields of mathematics, languages and science.

Trips and workshops

At Poggio D’Oro we organise a wide range of trips and workshops including trips to the sea, nature reserves, cultural cities and the mountain. On a weekly basis, children have access to ceramics, art, woodwork, crotchet, yoga and meditation workshops.

Case Study

Setting the school up – the reality

There was a great deal of energy and enthusiasm from parents in the local community for the school, both from the Italian and international communities. Translating this into practice proved more challenging. Parents of the materna aged children were happy to commit to their children taking a place at the school, particularly because much of the state provided materna childcare was unattractive in location, ethos or quality of staffing. Poggio d’Oro’s offer was more akin to private materna schools, but at a lower fee rate.

It was much harder getting commitment from the primary aged children’s parents. Parents were unwilling to commit to an idea without seeing it in practice, therefore we were somewhat in a catch-22 situation. The school was largely financed from the personal pockets of the key founding members. Parents wanted to see the school up and running with the teacher or staff in place, before they would commit to it. There was very much a feeling that once one family committed, others would follow suit.

Learning:

When establishing a new community project/school, rapid prototyping at the lowest possible cost is essential.

This would allow parents to see elements of the idea in action, giving them the chance to make a more informed choice when committing to the school.

Rapid prototyping could take the form of summer camps/activities, Saturday workshops or cycles of progressive educational projects which parents could dip into as tasters.

Rapid prototyping also allows a period of reflection and time to improve the model.

Setting the school up: staffing

We needed to staff the school in order to introduce parents to the teacher/s and yet we could not finally select the teachers and offer them a contract until we knew who would be part of the school. As financing for the school was being generated through fees we were trying to attract staff who were interested in being involved in a progressive project and were able to exist on a lower stipend initially.

We recruited a teacher who had two children who would also attend the school. For the teacher in question, the idea of being able to develop her educational ideas alongside having her children in the school was an attraction. The teacher was very experienced in more formal state education and was interested in developing progressive ideas.

In practice, the teacher was energetic and full of ideas, but the set up of the school and the dynamic of having her own children in the classroom put extra stress on her, partly because her children were dealing with completely understandable relocation issues.  The teacher needed more time to work on her ideas for playful learning and more support and training than we could offer her initially.

Learning: A pool of core funding is required in order to attract staff who are able to deliver the educational experience being offered by the school. A start up business/project plan needs to incorporate base funding which will allow staff to be recruited and paid for one month before the school opens in order to develop resources.

At least one member of staff needs experience in the educational values and ethos of the learning centre. The initial budget needs to include provision for training for staff who are developing their understanding of progressive education. 

The daily running of the school: in practice

Finally the school opened with 10 children registered for materna and nine registered for primaria.

The primaria school was composed of:

Boy/girl siblings aged 5/6 –Italian
Single boy aged 6/7 – English (second language Italian – fluent)
Boy/girl siblings aged 6 and 8 – English (second language Italian – highly competent)
Boy siblings aged 6/7 and 8/9 – Canadian/French (second language Italian – fluent)
Boy aged 6/7 – Italian
Boy aged 6 – Italian
Boy aged 8 – Italian

The materna school was composed of 2 siblings and the rest were single children or siblings of primaria children. There was one 4 year old and the others were aged 2 to 3 years. There was a fairly equal mix of boys and girls.

Positive elements of such an intake

The children often worked well as a community, at play time they would often work as a group to develop a game enjoyed by all.On other occasions the English speaking children would form one group and the Italian children would form another. As the group was small there were many opportunities for mixed age learning and for the children to learn extensively from each other.The children knew each other extremely well which contributed to the familial community atmosphere of the school.

Learning

The sibling dynamic in a very small community school put pressures on the environment and the teacher. This was also partly because this school exists within a community which is itself relatively small, thus this group of children was largely unchanged as a group outside school as well as in. As with all groups, there were times during which greater diversity would have helped to change the energy. However, the children were learning to deal with real life situations and emotions within their small group and they were often encouraged to work things out independently.

A larger physical inside space would have helped the dynamic.

The teacher required greater understanding of self directed learning in practice. There was considerable pressure on the teacher as mother to her children who were coping with change, coupled with her need to develop her own ideas.

In hindsight it might have been wise to recruit a less experienced teacher who might have found it easier to embrace a more liberal attitude towards education. It was important to clarify the ethos of the school to ensure that parents, staff and founders were all in agreement as to what the school was offering educationally to the children.

 Defining expectations of children and families before enrolment is extremely important, even if those expectations are few and simple. For example, the Sudbury Valley schools require only that children are at school for five hours a day: what they do within that time is up to them. This school was not established as a democratic school, however the principal of defining expectations is important. 

Daily life in the school

The school’s location was idyllic: set in beautiful Tuscan countryside with olive groves and vineyards and surrounded by woodland, the children had a wonderful outside open space. We had chickens at the school which the children had responsibility for feeding as well as a vegetable garden and school composter. The children were free to roam around the outside space, within the grounds of the school and were trusted not to go off grounds, even though there was very little actual fencing.

The school day was, in comparison to other Italian schools, unstructured, which meant that the children had a great deal of time to play outside, with long break times in the morning and at lunchtime. As teachers we very much responded to their pace in order to decide when to break in the morning and at lunch time and their free play times were extensive, usually drawing to a natural close. When they were outside, the primaria group often played together, or in two distinct language groups, as well as with the younger materna children. There was an incredibly nurturing relationship between the primaria and materna children, with the primaria children often taking one or two materna children under their wing or helping them with simple tasks or getting snacks.

At break time we had shared ‘colazione’, the break time snack: one family per week was responsible for providing the break time snack for all the adults and children in the school. This helped to build a community feel as well as to encourage children to broaden their tastes by eating together and sampling food that they might not have tasted at home. Given the cross cultural community, children from different countries were able to introduce each other to different tastes. Adults and children ate together at the same table and we always encouraged sharing, politeness and helpfulness with different children taking responsibility for preparing and clearing away the snacks on different days.

At lunch time, children could either eat the school lunches, paid for separately and prepared by the local Italian cooking school (all food was organic and home cooked) or they could bring a packed lunch. Materna children and adults ate first followed by primaria children and adults, for space reasons. All children and adults in each school ate together, regardless of whether their lunch was packed or prepared. Children were encouraged to share food and offer tastings. A love of food and eating together was shared by all.  

The food offered through the school was of the highest quality and allowed the school to develop one of its core values, namely care for the environment, making informed choices about what to eat in terms of a healthy balanced diet and in terms of sustainable eating and good animal welfare.

The school committed fully to composting food waste and recycling all recyclable produce and children were encouraged to take responsibility for this where possible.

The school had chickens on site which were free to roam. The children fed the chickens and collected their eggs during the week. They were also asked to help to make sure the chickens were back in the pen safely at night time.

Learning

The colazione rota, communal eating and freedom in the outside space worked well. The outside space did have ‘risk’ areas, but parents were aware of the space to which they were taking their children. Adults expected children to think about how they were playing and to test boundaries and take risks within reason. As founders of the school we believe that children are not given enough responsibility in today’s society. Children need to take risks and push boundaries in order to learn. Adults were present outside while the children were playing and therefore able to intervene in the event that the children needed to reconsider the way in which they were playing.

On several occasions we had outdoor fires on the field, led by adults who helped the children to understand how to manage fires sensibly. The children responded maturely to the responsibility of lighting and maintaining the camp fire.

Given that this kind of environment encourages risk taking and pushes the boundaries which have become more normal in modern society, it is important that all parents subscribe to this type of free play and learning. In a UK setting parents joining the association/school would be asked to sign a disclaimer agreeing to their children playing in this way.

Trips and freedom

Setting up an association which was not beholden to state educational laws and rules was incredibly liberating. As parents, staff and founders we were able to choose how to structure our days and weeks. This gave us enormous freedom with regard to trips and activities.

In the first three months there were a wide range of trips and activities:

Five consecutive trips to see and examine local tree varieties (biology, science, art)
Grape harvest, wine making and fermentation with a local, but world-class wine maker (science, agriculture, local economy)
Olive harvest and olive oil making (science, agriculture, local economy)
Day trip to local sculptor’s garden (art)
Morning visit to elderly care centre (local community links, caring for others)
Olive oil soap making (science, art, craft)
Scented bath bomb making (science, art, craft)
Biscuit making (maths, science, cookery)
Bread making (maths, science, cookery)
Ceramics (clay pots, clay models, clay gifts – art)
Woodwork (box making, den building, using adult tools – maths, art, craft)
Singing in Italian and English
Theatre, poetry recital, performance
Many walks in the local woods, responding seasonally – collecting whatever is seasonally appropriate for craft making back at school.

The outside space was a fantastic resource and freedom and flexibility of choice over how we structured the week was liberating.

Learning

While Montalcino enjoys fabulous weather much of the year, the winters are cold and many of the buildings in the area are badly equipped for cold weather. The school building was poorly insulated and the woodburner heating system was insufficient for the space. This meant that from December the school building became increasingly difficult to work in. The children were able to continue to use the outside space but when setting up a permanent space a large, open, warm indoor space is also vital for the kind of learning style promoted by such a school.

Scuola familiale – family involvement

The school was well supported practically by parents and the local community, be that in running workshops, helping the teachers in the classroom or contributing materials.

Scuola sociale – community links

The school actively supported the local community, for example through involvement in seasonal activities and visits to elderly care homes. The school also supported and was supported by a local charity which helped African communities. Three volunteers from the local African community assisted in the school on a daily basis, both caring for the children and helping practically with the maintenance of the school. The relationship developed with these friends is a core part of the school community.

Financial running of the school

This scuola familiale was established very much as a community project, and as such the budget was incredibly tight. Many parents whose children attended the school could not afford to pay any more to be part of the association. Other parents were reluctant to pay more for a community project which did not offer the resources, space or expertise of a more formal or established private school.

Learning

  1. A realistic budget with provision for contingency is vital from the outset.
  2. The desire to set up a community, family project needs to be balanced against the need to run something efficiently, for which money is required.
  3. Staff members are the organisation’s most expensive, but also most valuable resource. In this instance, and in future UK projects intended to develop from the learning gained in setting up this school, staff will not be traditional knowledge-imparting teachers. Staff will be trained in self directed learning techniques and will be supporting children in their learning. Their role will be responsive, but nevertheless the most important and expensive expenditure for the school. The budget needs to allow for this.
  4. The school as a centre requires daily managing, maintenance and running, from cleaning and cleaning supplies through to building maintenance, through to staff management. A designated person is required for this role. Relying constantly on parental good will is in the long term detrimental to the effectiveness of the centre.
  5. The budget requires either launch and core funding from trusts and grants in order to ensure sustainability or this funding needs to be built into family subscriptions. Parents therefore need to understand that while they are not buying a traditional private school education, they are subscribing to something that nevertheless requires energy, planning and resources and a sound budget, based on income from fees is fundamental to the long term sustainability of the project.