What is pupil-centred education?

October 4, 2023 | Blog, Education

The Olive Tree School teaches the English national curriculum through nursery, primary and secondary school to age 16, or keystage 4. The school emphasises small classrooms, with a maximum of 20 pupils from Year 1 to 11 and 24 pupils combined in nursery and reception. The Olive Tree began life in a small house near the Sitges beach, with the aim of providing a warm environment with dynamic learning. Fourteen years later it is a thriving part of the local community in Sant Pere de Ribes offering samll class sizes, sensory and project-based learning. Founder Audrey Reeder talked to us about pupil-centred education and why it is so important.

What is a pupil-centred education?
And why is it beneficial to young learners from 3 to 18?


What is a pupil-centred school?


It is a school which follows a recognised government curriculum but takes as the starting point of every lesson the pupil’s current understanding.

In practice, this means every pupil has their own objectives for every hour of learning; also personalised activities for every hour. This way, the pupils is always on a steep learning curve for him / her, always engaged and feeling successful.

We at The Olive Tree use a range of methods to personalise learning: 

– small classes with excellent teacher to pupil ratios

– sensory learning for younger children aged 3-6: nature, story, artwork, gardening, dance, drama, music, discovery

– project-based learning where Ancient Greece or the solar system come to life in 3D in primary

– a thematic / cross-curricular approach in secondary, where abstract concepts are explored through all the disciplines e.g. Power, Migration, Energy, War & Peace

a pupil’s many needs are addressed holistically, not just the cognitive / intellectual: also the physical, the social, the emotional, the intuitive, the ethical, the spiritual

a learning environment free of anxiety and pressure

– a rich programme of arts subjects for all: two weekly hours of Music and Choir with a physical response to music and emphasis on instruments for all

weekly Drama lessons with a trained actor, exploring dramatic texts and emotions in the theatre

– a rich range of sports in our 3.000 m2 of space

– a strong system of emotional support: for younger children, warm daily dialogue; for older pupils, a mentor who provides supportive weekly guidance

– open doors to the adult community to participate in the teaching of our young people

– open doors to pupils to speak to teachers and headteachers at all times

What are the results of pupil-centred learning?


Research shows that the advantages are overwhelming in number:

  • a confident child with high self-esteem
  • an independent learner with strong organizational skills
  • a free-thinking young adult who is not afraid of new challenges
  • excellent examination results in the teenage years
  • a balanced approach to learning and life
  • excellent listening and communication skills
  • a deep love of reading
  • sensitivity to nature 
  • academic success post 18


How does a pupil-centred teacher work differently from a traditional teacher?


You can’t easily spot the teacher in the pupil-centred classroom! 

S/he might be moving from pupil to pupil, might be sitting with one pupil, might be in the circle. There is no teacher’s desk.

Our teachers plan and create all of the learning in their classrooms; they don’t follow textbooks.

They speak much less than their pupils.

The learning they create is exploratory: every hour is varied.

The teacher models excitement about learning, reading, ideas; it’s contagious!

The teacher is non-judgemental and fosters tolerance for a range of viewpoints.

The teacher is not looking for right/wrong answers but instead poses open questions designed to open young minds and launch the child into high order thinking.

The teacher has a close bond with each pupil; a deep understanding makes for personalized objectives for each child and for effective emotional support when needed.

The teacher is optimistic and advocates for every pupil.

The teacher is always calm and trains pupils in their own peaceful conflict resolution.

What does the pupil-centred classroom look like in the early years, primary years and up to 18?


Early Years & Primary

The early classrooms offer choice and fresh daily opportunities to explore: a mini library, role play corner with costumes, a letters table, a number table, a science discovery table-  each area is new every day, with fresh challenges and questions.

In the early years 3-6, children must have constant access to good quality gardens and nature; we have two large vegetable plots, we tend our olive and lemon trees, our flowering shrubs. Our children have their own mini theatre block they assemble in the garden or indoors for singing and dancing. They have a range of natural materials to build and learn with: sand, stone, earth, wood, water, plants. 

We also have a forest beside school where children learn within the framework of Forest School philosophy; they negotiate to solve team problems and create natural tools and artwork.


As pupils grow, they continue to need access to nature and also to beautiful spaces to foster great thinking such a theatre, laboratory, a colourful library where pupils order the new purchases and are the librarians, a large all-weather sports hall of (800 m2).

All pupils need homely areas to relax in and make their own: cosy libraries with sofas, a quiet garden, a graffiti wall, a secondary café.

All of the world is our classroom! Outdoor learning (our towns, cities and rural areas) enriches and deepens learning.


What are the resources and facilities of a pupil-centred school?


  • grassy, tree-lined gardens with vegetable plots
  • spaces designed and decorated by pupìls: our Peace Garden, our libraries, etc.
  • large sports facilities (we have 3000 m2 in total)
  • plentiful new books, chosen by pupils
  • musical instruments on loan to interested pupils
  • pianos to practise and fill the school with music (we have five)
  • an open door at all times to the staff room and to the headteachers
  • quiet rooms for reflection or homework
  • clubs and activities that mirror the changing interests of the current pupils


You can find out more about the admissions process here

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