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Athene Reiss

In conversation with Roman Krznaric

Photo of Athene Reiss

I got involved in West Oxford Primary School because my son was attending. When I put his name down to come to school here, we received this lovely letter from the children in the nursery saying that he could have a place. It was beautiful, covered with drawings by the children. The hours weren’t very convenient for us, but the note was so sweet that I couldn’t bear to write back saying, ‘no thank you’. So my son and I came in together to look around and say ‘thank you, but could you hold the place ‘til next year?’. But we were so enchanted by the nursery and the teacher, Lesley Neilson, that I decided that even though it was inconvenient, we would reorganise our lives so he could come to the nursery here. So he started when he was three and went all the way through until he finished at age 11.

Some time in there I was elected as a parent governor. I put myself forward because I liked the school and wanted to be involved. I’m still a governor, although my son has left. I’m just very attached to the school. It’s still like that very first day when I thought, what a delightful place, I wish I could be a pupil here. I guess that’s why I’ve stayed on. I love to come in and see the children. I find it really heart-warming. They’re so positive and have so much joy and energy and sincerity. I like to help and I hope that I have a role in making the school work well and grow and develop.

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I was born in Oxford in a little house off the Abingdon Road, when my father was studying for an M.Phil. at St Catherine’s College. After about two and half years we moved back to the United States. While I was studying for a PhD in Chicago, I met an English man and I ended coming back here to be with him.

My father was a businessman who did a lot of community work in education, which I think is where I got my taste for it. For example, he helped set up a project whereby disadvantaged young people were enabled to open banks accounts so they could learn about practical applications of maths and see why maths was relevant to them.

My primary school was just an ordinary primary school in Cheshire, Connecticut. But when I was in fourth grade – about nine years old – I had a really special teacher called Mrs Muesel. She decided to experiment with an ‘open classroom’. She moved with us into the fifth grade and she made links with the sixth grade and fourth grade teachers, and she opened up walls between three different classrooms and we did a lot of moving around in the year groups.

I found out recently that a lot of the ideas that she was working with were brought to Connecticut by people from Westminster College in Oxford, just up the hill from West Oxford Primary School. The ideas weren’t totally radical, but they were innovations that could be contained within a universal state education system. And that, in a way, is truly radical because you’re offering your ideas to everybody, not just offering it to those who select it. You’re saying that this is a style of education that would be suitable for everyone.

In the end we got rid of all the furniture and we had a post graduate student, who came in from Yale, rethink the room arrangements and furniture. He was lovely, Bob Rindler he was called, and he wore odd socks, which appealed to us enormously. He was a bit of a hippy and he had a beard, and he designed new furniture, and the children and the parents helped build it and paint it. It was based on a given cube and you could have double cubes and half cubes, and you could have chairs that were a single closed cube and then bookcases that were four open cubes. All these shapes were interrelated so there was a great sense of geometry, and the colours were all bright primaries. It was terrifically early 70s! You could move the cubes around and build them up. You could change the shape of the classroom. That was the beauty of the modular system. It was fantastic. It was a wonderful experience having a real designer come into the school.

All of those things together have given me a strong interest in education and a commitment to thinking about how education can help make the world a better place, and what the role of the arts might be in that better world.

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I think what makes West Oxford School special is the diversity of its pupils, first off. It’s a genuinely mixed community, and I love that. We’ve been very lucky and successful in finding teachers who are really committed to their jobs and the children they work with. I think the governors have a part in that. We’ve been committed to aspects that make for a good school, things like multiculturalism and inclusion, and valuing a wide range of things that children do and ways that children are, and not just what their SATs results might be.

The School is very welcoming. Every so often we have circus children in the classes as temporary pupils, and we make them feel right at home. And they make us feel glamorous! The School’s very good at teaching the children how to care for other people. That’s something you do because you are a community and you’re part of a community. It’s very hard to teach that in isolation. It’s not a particular set of values I’m talking about – it’s values that grow out of being part of a community.

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The things that I’m enthusiastic about in my life are things I’m enthusiastic about in the School. The provision of arts teaching and experience for the children reflects my own love of the arts. And trying to live in an environmentally sustainable way is something that’s important in my life and something I’d like to bring to the school as well.

The School has a strong commitment to becoming more green and I’m heavily involved in that. I help Julie [the Head Teacher] run an ‘Eco-Warriors’ group – that’s the children’s name for it, although the did think about calling themselves ‘Eco-Worriers’ for a bit! With that group we do different sorts of projects. We’ve done a lot about waste and recycling. One of the groups of children wrote to Crop recycling company and got them to send recycling boxes and set up a system for recycling paper – because the city won’t collect our recycling as we’re a ‘business’. We are also in the process of seeing if we can get some solar panelling for the school (donors welcome to come forward!).

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We’ve taken racial equality and cultural tolerance seriously perhaps because we have the advantage of having a wide mix of pupils. We’ve thought hard about how to incorporate multiculturalism into the curriculum so that it’s not just an add on.

The School’s relationship with the wider community is largely based on parents but has been extending in the last few years through relations with other groups in the community, for instance with the West Oxford Community Association. The children sing Christmas carols for various local groups, including some of the residences for elderly people and Oxford Rail Station. We’ve also got links with the local wildlife group, we have an Asian Women’s English group at the school, and we’ve sometimes let out the kitchen and canteen for big local weddings.

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I’ve also been involved in the local Woodcraft Folk, ‘an educational movement for children and young people, which aims to develop self confidence and activity in society, with the aim of building a world based on equality, friendship, peace and co-operation.’ Well, that’s how the website describes the group, but it could also be described as being about creating a community of people, who have a sense of social justice, knowledge and awareness of other cultures, and who go camping.

I’m a teacher as well. I teach the History of Art, mostly to adults, and I see my role not as an expert who lectures to people about things, but as an expert who can enable people to see in new and deeper ways. It’s about enabling, not telling.

I think the purpose of education is to give people basic skills that they need to function happily in society. I think it’s to socialise people and to teach them about shared values and the community in which they’re going to grow up. A really important aspect of learning about being with other people is that you educate children in state-funded schools. I’m desperately against private education. Having said that, I was partly privately educated myself, but that’s another story.

I hope education also gives children enjoyment and widens their horizons so that people get to experience things that they wouldn’t otherwise experience if they just stayed at home. I’m also passionately against home educating children. I think it’s a really bad idea because you risk bringing up children who only know about what you know about. It’s really important to me that children learn about other things that their own parents wouldn’t teach them and wouldn’t choose to teach them. I don’t support a lot of the ways that recent governments have directed education but I still wouldn’t say that it’s better to educate children at home. Having lots of different experiences is what makes for a rich life.

I’m involved in West Oxford School because I think it is up to us to create the world we want to live in, and the world I want to live in values children and their education, and sees that education as being about a wide range of social interests, including respect for the environment, love of the arts, and care for each other as individuals. I hope we empower the children, so that they grow up also believing that they can, through their own actions, create the world they want to live in.

Photo of Athene Reiss underneath her portrait
A portrait of Athene by a pupil of West Oxford Primary School



December 2004