Absolutely Yorkshire meets Anton Maree, Headmaster of Ackworth School, to see how their Quaker ethos influence their 21st century approach to education
Could you offer us a potted history of Ackworth School…
Ackworth was founded as a Quaker school in 1779, to educate Quaker children ‘not in affluence’. Much has changed since then, but Quaker values still underpin the school. It is the oldest co-educational school, offering boarding, in the country.
Today, what does the school offer?
Ackworth School is an integrated and self-disciplined community, with an international dimension and well-developed awareness of the Quaker values: simplicity, truth, equality and peace. The school is noted for its observance of kindness, inclusivity and respect for one another and for those less fortunate than ourselves. We help all of our pupils progress at a pace appropriate to their age, aptitude, interests and ability, to achieve the best external examination results of which they are capable, and to leave school equipped to lead a full and responsible life in the adult world.
Ackworth is an all-through, co-educational, day and boarding school with pupils from the age of 2½-18 and what makes us unique is that we also have a dedicated Autism Resource that gives pupils access to mainstream education.
We are proud of our ability to uphold the traditions and ethos upon which the school was founded, but we are mindful of the need to be forward looking in our approach. We are well-known for our table tennis and squash academies, which achieve national honours on a frequent basis with several former scholars achieving great distinction. Football, hockey and netball are our main school sports. There is a very long tradition of football at our school. Ackworth’s first footballer, John Fryer (1850-1854), was often heard to state that he was the first Ackworth boy to kick a football. Close to us in South Yorkshire the world’s first football club, Sheffield Football Club, was founded in 1857.
Do you make the most of your wonderful setting?
It is impossible not to. The buildings date back to the 1750s when they were used as a foundling hospital and are built from local sandstone. Living on the school campus is a privilege because I have access to a vast campus and country surroundings. Our grounds extend over 300 acres of land in rural West Yorkshire and are complete with the Went River, an arboretum with 54 indigenous trees, and excellent sporting facilities.
What do you love most about your job?
The opportunity to make a difference for the pupils and families that attend Ackworth, our neighbouring community, and the 30 state primary schools we work with as educational partners in West Yorkshire. I love the resolve our pupils display to make a personal and collective difference to the world. They certainly take the lead when it comes to climate change and are unwavering in their desire to have an impact. Being the Head of an all-through school where inclusivity and excellence in education matter and benefits the entire community is a privilege. My pupils and staff are welcoming and engage readily in conversation, it feels wonderful to be recognised by everyone and to know that I am making a difference.
What curriculum do you follow at Ackworth School?
Academic success and the willingness to learn are important along with personal wellbeing and an enjoyment of schooling. Being an independent school, we are lucky to adapt and change our curriculum to move with the times in an ever-changing world. We offer our version of the National Curriculum and then a broad and traditional choice of subjects at GCSE and A-level. For many of our parents, securing a place at university is the main goal. This requires a focus on teaching key skills like problem solving and adaptability. As an all-through school we can influence our pupils over a longer period of time and build confidence and leadership into our curriculum. In addition to the taught curriculum, we offer access to opportunities and experiences beyond the classroom and our pupils can choose to be whatever and whoever they want to be. We acknowledge that our pupils have to learn how to collaborate, think creatively and take responsibility. They are all encouraged to do the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which is fantastic for offering new challenges and teaching resilience.
Can you describe a typical classroom scene?
The purpose of education is to make our pupils ready for life beyond school. A visitor to our school would be impressed with the eloquence, confidence and ability of our pupils. They demonstrate mature learning behaviours, taking ownership of their learning whilst displaying perseverance. The benefits of technology have propelled education at our school and we use Apple devices to enable access to wider resources. Our teachers are adept at ‘flipping’ learning to develop awareness and confidence and are able to improve learning outcomes because of their ability to encourage engagement. We use advanced tracking methods to provide evidence upon which our teachers can act and pupils react positively to their advice.
What opportunities do you offer outside of the classroom?
Ackworth School has a wide variety of clubs which take place outside of the school day. We place great emphasis on the wellbeing and happiness of our pupils and offer many activities to help support pupils who may be struggling with their studies. Whilst some activities promote physical development, others have a positive effect on mental health. We have seen how effective mindfulness and yoga are to help our pupils cope with the uncertainties of life. Those pupils who engage with activities are certainly happier, more confident and integrate with other pupils from across the world.
Is there one thing you believe makes you stand out from other schools?
There are now only six independent Quaker schools in the country. Our Quaker ethos makes us distinctive. We offer an exceptional non-selective education where the focus is on the child. Children grow through being here and are all known to their teachers who play an active part in their progress. Our ethos makes it possible for us to host boarders from all over the world as well as providing a mainstream educational experience for 20 pupils with autism.
What have been the highlights of the school year just gone?
Without a doubt it has been a pleasure to see students back in school after the pandemic. Covid disturbed normal school life and lost classroom time is hard to recover. Despite that, we were very pleased with how our pupils had been able to progress despite lockdown. Simple things like being together for inter-house events, school fixtures, or simply welcoming guest speakers or prospective parents to the school have made all the difference.
What are you looking forward to ahead of the new school year?
Dare I say this, but the holidays are too long. The school is a place of learning and it is best when it is filled with children.