In September 2019, Charlotte Church set up a school in the annex of her house. The school was not built, but pupils arrived in the autumn nonetheless. Unable to fit in within traditional education, the children came from a variety of backgrounds, hoping to find a home in the former popstar’s garden.
School founder is a far cry from singing Pie Jesu to the Pope. From classical musician to pop star to TV personality, Church has tried on many personas since the 1990s and this, initially, seems to be the most surprising. The project quickly became tabloid fodder. “She has no educational background or track record in managing a school,” one neighbour commented to the Daily Mail, while others voiced concerns about clogged up parking.
Church doesn’t seem to mind this kind of reception. The 34-year-old has always been outspoken and, as a child star, her political opinions were formed in the limelight. In 2002 she was the youngest ever panellist on Have I Got News For You, aged 16. In 2015 she endorsed Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leadership and in 2016 she travelled the UK supporting Corbyn’s bid to become Prime Minister. Now she is focusing on issues a little closer to home.
I chat with Church via a video call, at her home in the village of Dinas Powys in South Wales where she lives with her husband and two children. At seven months pregnant, she struggles to find a comfortable position as we ease into our discussion about the school she set up in her garden. Her dog intermittently disrupts the call, sniffing and wriggling at her feet.
“I’ve been gently researching education for six to seven years,” she says, as her dog jumps up playfully. “I’ve met with lots of different teachers and education professionals. I went to different schools up and down the country. I’ve never been so driven, it’s bizarre. I feel a bit like I have just done a self-directed PhD.”
Church gave birth to her first child Ruby in 2007, and her son Dexter two years later. During this period she began to question the schooling that was available to her kids. “We went around the schools and it just felt a bit wrong. It felt like they were too young and it was all too structured. It just felt a bit like a job. Why would you want to send your four-year-old to a job?”
Unsatisfied, Church searched for alternatives. “We homeschooled the kids for a while and it was a hell of a journey. I tried to teach like a teacher and it was stressful. It was awful. The kids absolutely wouldn’t accept it, especially my daughter. So then we freed things up a bit. Now all the learning that I do with the kids is outdoors, we just go into the forest and we learn about all sorts of different things. It immediately just broke down all of those expectations that I had on myself, of me just regurgitating patterns that I had in my own education.”
Then in 2017, Church formulated a plan. “I woke up one morning and I just said to my husband, let’s start a school.”
Over the next 18 months, Church would undergo an intensive research mission, consuming everything education: “I read more books than I’ve ever read in my life.” In her self-education, she visited schools up and down the country, including Eton and the Sands school in Devon; a school that describes itself as pioneering “genuinely child-centred teaching”. But while she struggled to find fault with Eton’s teaching, its over-reliance on competition bothered her. “Competition is dangerous. It gives you external confidence but what about internal confidence? Having winners and losers isn’t always good for people.”
Church is passionate when she speaks: “Teaching each other is something that is quite innate, it’s quite primal. It’s quite simple. I don’t think it needs all the pomp and circumstance of 50 million different ways in which to analyse the delivery method, and then the outcomes. And, you know, outcomes for who? I think we need to ask ourselves much, much deeper philosophical questions about what the point of education is. Why are we doing this? Why are we giving children what is essentially a full-time job for stuff that a lot of them don’t want to do? What is the purpose of that?”
Church’s school would become the beginning of the Awen Project, a small educational charity that aims to spread small community focused schools across the world; beginning, of course in Charlotte Church’s annex.
Instead of classrooms, Church’s pupils would learn outdoors as much as possible, fitting in traditional learning alongside the self-directed construction of their school. “When the kids first got to the building there was nothing there. There were no chairs, there was no paper, there was nothing in there. And so they had to create it all from scratch essentially.”
Church, her husband and several teachers, welcomed 18 kids, aged 9-12 into the school last autumn. The pupils she selected for the free school had previously struggled with mainstream education. Some of the cohort came to her school as selective mutes: “These kids were very, very unhappy in mainstream education,” Church says, “but then within a couple of months they were chairing our daily democratic meeting.”
The daily democratic meeting is the defining feature of Church’s school. Everyday the children meet to discuss the rules and agendas of the day. The rules the children set for themselves change periodically depending on what the group chooses to vote for at any given time. The rest of the day is spent physically building and designing the school, as well as taking part in theatre, music and exploring history.
“We never stop to really listen to children,” Church tells me with earnest conviction. “For me, this is all about children’s rights. I think that children are the last group on earth to be liberated.”
But of course much has changed since the school was set up last year. “As much as there is a deep grief to coronavirus, I also think there is poetry in what it is making us do,” says Church. “I think this time is crucial: this needs to be a sit back and reflect moment for all educators. We need to ask the question, why are we doing things the way we do them?”
As the pandemic simmers on, Church’s school like any other has had to adapt. The first academic year was funded personally by Church, but the charity funding planned for the school’s second year fell through. “Obviously lots of that funding has stopped because it’s now going to the frontline services which is completely understandable,” she says. “So now the school is part time. We are doing Macbeth via Zoom at the moment.”
This isn’t the only way the school has had to think on its feet recently. As the Black Lives Matter protests have forced educators to question the whiteness of our school curriculums, Church says it’s important that we help children understand where prejudice comes from. “Recently we have been doing loads of our learning about racial inequality, about looking at our own unconscious bias. And, you know, trying to contextualise what has been happening. That’s what the children need at this juncture.”
In the past few weeks, Church has attended the Black Lives Matter protests with her children and has signed petitions to introduce more black history into schools. It’s crucial, she says, that we teach children about their own history as well that of the people in their neighbouring communities. “For LGBTQ week we had an amazing drag queen come speak to us, Le Gateau Chocolat. He talked to the school about allyship and what it means to pass the mic. And as white privileged people especially, we need to know when to pass the mic.”
When it comes to controversial issues, Church is far from reticent. At the beginning of June, Church received backlash online for her tweets that advised parents not to send their kids back to school. “This government doesn’t give a fuck about you, your children, your elders or your vulnerable,” she wrote.
For Church, what children want must be considered before anything else. “When to send kids back to school is a very difficult ethical conversation. There’s no right or wrong but there is obviously a difference between perceived risk and actual risk here,” she says. “For some children their need to have some social interaction is getting to fever pitch now. But I don’t buy this education bullshit. You know, the argument that ‘Oh they are never going to catch up on this six months of learning.’ Well, no, it just means that you’re going to have to adjust your parameters, which you really need to do anyway.”
As lockdown continues, Church is still teaching her children outside in the neighbouring woodland. The natural light, she says, is proven to improve our capacity for absorbing information, something ignored by traditional schooling. “It is going to take a massive effort for adults to make real changes to transform the education system. But the thing is,” she says, “is that it is possible.”