LISBON Top of the Class: Innovation in Education

A new school in Lisbon provides an added incentive for foreign expat families.


Top of the Class: Innovation in Education

A new school in Lisbon provides an added incentive for foreign expat families.

For families looking to relocate abroad, one of the biggest questions faced is how to ensure that their kids receive the best education. It’s a delicate game, finding the balance between a school that nurtures and supports the child’s adaptation process, while ensuring that their education will be comprehensive enough for them to successfully integrate back into their native country’s schooling system if necessary. So what’s the solution? Traditionally, expat parents have been left to choose between international schools based in the French, British or American system. Following the relevant national curriculum, they can be safe options, if at the same time limiting in their creativity and with a strong bias for single language teaching.

When faced with the same question, Parisian Elizabeth Mathieu, who moved to Lisbon 12 years ago and now has 3 children aged between 2 and 9, took a new approach. “I visited all of the schools in Lisbon, and while there are some great ones outside of the city, I didn’t find the right school in the city centre, so we saw a gap in the market and decided to build it ourselves”, shares Elizabeth.  Partnering with fellow French mother, Hélène Dubourdieu, the pair set about creating the school they dreamed of for their kids.  3 years in the making, the result is Red Bridge School, which opens this September in the charmingly peaceful residential neighborhood of Campo de Ourique.  While Red Bridge welcomes kids from 3 to 12 years, one of the key defining criteria of their approach to education is that the classes are mixed age. “When they are little, kids often develop at very different speeds,” says Elizabeth,  “so it doesn’t make sense to hold them back or push them if they are moving at their own pace.  It’s such a crucial time for cultivating an ease and passion for learning, so we believe in assessing each child and then finding the best solution tailored to their needs.”

Multi-age classes is one of the key principals of the Montessori schools, one of the most successful and proven alternative schooling pedagogies. First developed by Italian teacher Maria Montessori in 1906, it is a system that has been enjoying year-on-year global growth for the past 20 years as parents seek alternatives to rigid, often antiquated governmental systems that fail to take into account the widespread research around how we really learn. Other defining factors of the Montessori system include self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative work, an approach that is proven to enable children to expand their creativity and ability to execute tasks.  Along with Movimento Escola Moderna, it’s a model that provided Hélène and Elizabeth with a strong base to evolve the educational program for Red Bridge.

“For a long time, we debated whether we should build Red Bridge as a Montessori school or as part of the Movimento da Escola Moderna” explains Elizabeth. “Then we realised the best approach was to use them both as tools, without limiting ourselves to a fixed model, and instead to keep our approach flexible and let it evolve organically. We sourced a lot of inspiration from these two pedagogies, especially when it came to developing the intrinsic motivation of the children, which encourages children to act out of what they believe will be good for them, rather than because of an external force, such as praise, fear, competition or punishment. Autonomy is very important for confidence. Even if you are 3, if you understand that you can do something alone, you feel stronger.” While Red Bridge will be accredited within both the Portuguese and French system, lessons structure is designed to evolve naturally around each class’s area of interest; each day begins with a group sharing circle where the teachers gauge what most sparks the children’s attention and then develops lesson-plans for the day or week accordingly, incorporating the full spectrum of subjects yet relating them to practical everyday problems so that the pupils can immediately put the theory to practical use. “According to the education expert Ken Robinson, traditional schools destroy creativity”, says Elizabeth. “We can see this with the people of our generation, where creativity is very deeply buried. We want to change this, to give kids a daily opportunity for creative expression, be it through music, arts, or movement, enabling each child to find their means of expression and area of mastery.”

Central to the success of Red Bridge’s decentralised approach is the style of teachers they have recruited, bilingual experts from a wide scope of backgrounds that range from South Africa and Britain to France, Portugal and Angola.  A recurring challenge for teachers in the traditional system is that they often report feeling limited and unheard, forced to teach a curriculum in a way that they experience first-hand is not suited to their pupils, yet with limited power to innovate or improve the situation. “One of the advantages behind the fact that neither Hélène or I have a formal background in the education system is that we are able to look at the model with fresh eyes and from a new perspective”, shares Elizabeth. This brings about very interesting exchanges with the teachers we have selected and leads to a much more dynamic and productive environment. If you want to have an innovative school, you need innovative teachers, and you need to give them the space to do that.  Behind the scenes, we are all constantly in conversation, and the fact they have different backgrounds is very rich and enables them to cross-reference and share their areas of expertise and past experiences. It feels really good to give power back to the teachers, rather than limit their own input and creativity. Our role is to make the school flow and function administratively, so that the teachers can be the very best at their job and the kids can have the very best learning experience”. Monthly strategy meetings enable the school’s approach to develop in line with direct experience and the everyday realities and needs of its students.

While some parents find this fluidity a challenge, others highly value its approach. “We are noticing that the sort of parents who are drawn to trusting us with their kids’ education are international entrepreneurs used to innovating within systems and who have lived in many places.  They really value too how bi-lingual the school is, and the diversity of backgrounds of both the pupils and the teachers”. While morning lessons are held in either French or Portuguese, all afternoon classes are in English.  Each teacher is supported by an assistant teacher, most of whom are trained language teachers.  There is the common assumption that young kids find it easy to learn new languages, but really, they find it as challenging as we do, they just don’t know any different and haven’t yet learnt to complain! Language can be so tricky for kids, so it’s important to have experts on hand to help each one through their learning and evolution”.

Located just a few blocks from Estrela park, one of the city’s loveliest green spaces, the pair have taken an eco-conscious approach to the building concept, partnering with leading development firm Stone Capital.  Opting to build using CLT (cross-laminated timber), the wooden classrooms will lace lessons with the scent of the forest, integrating the buildings with the century-old lime trees set in the playground and ensuring the project has a low-carbon footprint.  While the land was originally purchased from an Association for the Blind, Red Bridge’s approach has been one of integration, allocating one of their buildings to the Association and establishing a partnership with weekly community work between the children and the Association and other local community projects. As the school matures, they will also offer bursaries to families who aren’t able to afford the €500 a month fees.

“Lisbon has been so kind to my husband and I over the years”, concludes Elisabeth, “and we have been so happy here, that this school is a way that we can give back”.