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Oksana Simonoff

Interview by Claire Dilks
& Nicola Hoogenboom

Baker Tilly Staples Rodway Women in business

Oksana Simonoff has spent much of her career working in senior tax positions. This year she has shifted her focus to a new pursuit: Democratic Education, by starting a Bush-School in Clevedon, the first of its kind in New Zealand. Deep Green Bush-School is a full nature-immersion bush-school, based on deep ecological principles.

Q: What made you move from tax to school children?

A: I cannot say I have entirely moved, tax is what funds my other passion. I still want to be plugged into the networks I have in the tax world but I would also like to pursue this. I’ve been researching it ever since the kids were born.

When your kids arrive no-one gives you a manual, so having moved countries I had a disconnect from my cultural roots, and not having parents around, or any guidance meant I actually had a clean piece of paper as to what I wanted to do with them.

I turned to neuroscience because I thought if you want to get direction, you need to go to science and that led to neuroscience. In the last 20 years a lot of research has become available to the general public, especially research on brain development in early childhood and kids’ needs. I was very much guided by the research from the Brainwave Trust as they are at the forefront of consolidating all the international research around the early years and adolescence, so I was guided by their presentations, by their references and gradually a picture started to emerge about how children could reach their full potential.

From my research I ended up with so much information that I felt I must do something about it and I guess that is what has led me to try to do something completely different.

Schools were designed with the industrial age in mind and that is no longer what we need. More and more businesses want creativity, intuition, emotional intelligence, non-cognitive development. So my job was to research what non-cognitive development unfolds before we start teaching them Mathematics and English and all of the other things they are supposed to know when they are 18. What I found was in the early years non-cognitive development unfolds in a beautiful way, mainly through self-directed play, and if you put them in the right environment and don’t direct them too much, they will be fine as they are and will be directed by intuition.

Q: So what has been your solution?

A: My research has shown there are elements missing in every school I see. I approached one particular school that did a lot of child-led learning however, they did not have outdoors.

From what I have seen with my kids going through nature kindergarten where they are outside all-day in all-weather, their skills developed very differently outside compared to those confined indoors. I wanted them to go to a free range school, where they figure out who they are and what they want in more stimulating settings outside before they are made to
do things. I asked schools with free-thinking if they were interested in doing an outside classroom on a full time basis and everyone said it’s a great idea, but they just cannot do it.

We thought “well, why not” and spoke to the Ministry of Education to see if they would ever fund this kind of learning environment. It is very early days but well overdue, from the
feedback we have had and especially from the Māori community as they understand this model very well; that is how they educated their kids before we came along and they did extremely well.

Pitching the idea to the Ministry of Education I thought they would say you are “off the planet” or “dreaming” and they looked at us and said “we know it works, so go and write a curriculum”. That was the start of our school, which is completely child-led and obviously surrounded with resources that are healthy and promote a healthy lifestyle for brain development, one that excludes technology entirely, and the Ministry was happy to approve it.

Q: Do you feel New Zealand has enough diversity in education?

A: I feel New Zealand is very much behind and extremely conservative. You will have diversity when people take risks, it’s a bit like entrepreneurship, people need to come up with ideas and be bold and brave to put their time and money on the table and start testing and trying, then you will have diversity. I met with the Chairwoman of the Brainwave Trust four years ago and I said “the research is there, it’s in New Zealand, so why aren’t you engaging with people to create some momentum around it? Why aren’t you putting this together?”

She said “look, we are scientists and we don’t have funding. It’s up to parents like you to do something about it.” It is easy for a person to start a business in New Zealand and it takes a person who looks outside the box, so that is what we have done.

Q: From a Woman in Business’ perspective, do you think this method will help girls develop an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)?

A: Personally I think STEM is over-rated. From one perspective as a parent, and coming from a STEM academic background, I understand what STEM does and I understand what careers are there and I understand what would have been available to me if I’d gone into science as opposed to economics and banking. You are basically being highly educated in a very narrow area and putting all your eggs in one basket.

In addition, Western science is unrestrained by ethics and gives the wrong worldview as it exists for the purpose of exploiting the natural world for human benefit at the expense of all other life forms. Pre-historic societies saw the big picture, how everything fits together and what comes at the expense of what. They did not lock kids from an early age inside because that teaches them to be separate from everything else, teaches them to exploit, not honour.

Sustainability was used with reference to the eco-system, as opposed to sustainability of a business that uses resources. We have a lot to learn from that worldview.

Our kids will not be too concerned with how hard we worked if they can’t breathe the air, water is polluted and wildlife is gone. Education is not complete and really is “miseducation” without a healthy angle on the human role in the eco-system. Our goal for the students graduating our school is to see the big picture and know better than that.

Q: How do you introduce these philosophical ideas to the children? Do you have discussion groups?

A: Yes. We have a lot of freedom in the early years, as free play nurtures intelligence, but when they hit 9 they are included in discussion groups three times a week. We have an adult who introduces a topic and does a talk, then the kids will contribute ideas and write reflections in their journals.


Q: Has it been popular in your first year?

A: It has been interesting to be honest, finding our crowd. We are learning ourselves and always searching for our brand, unfolding as we go. So far, we have a bunch of really outdoorsy kids, but we are starting to get enquiries from parents with very traditional backgrounds.

Q: You said it was a private school, does that mean it excludes people who cannot afford to send their kids there?

A: Yes, there are fees of course, as at any private school. I guess this is where we have had to balance our decision, from a commercial viability point of view, and also making it available to as many people as possible, from all different backgrounds. We have priced it at a level that is not private school, but at the same level as an integrated Steiner school, where all of the teacher salaries are government funded. We are $5,000 plus GST per year, which is not too expensive unless you have 2 or 3 kids. We have been told by people it will take 10 years to integrate the school with the state education system, but once you get funding you lose your freedom.

Q: Who else is involved in the facility? Is it a family business?

A: For now it is a partnership run business. My partner is from the States and is a secondary school teacher, so he’s perfectly placed. The ecology end of it and that whole perspective on
what education is for is very much a brain child of his. We initially thought of hiring a teacher from outside, and had applicants from all over the world, but for now we want to keep it small and work with stakeholders that are either parents, or those who are buying into what is going on here day-to-day. We have a mum volunteer 4 days a week and I am there 1 day a week. We have a ratio 1 to 5 and are focusing on taking on students who are 9 and older. We almost want to build a village of kids who can learn together, starting from the older to the younger.

Q: What is the gender mix of your school?

A: Of our ten students, four are girls and two of those are mine. We would like to have more girls.

Q: Is there a global group that you can feed into? You mentioned the forest schools in Europe.

A: They have already written to us asking if they can come and hold their forums here, there are many organisations globally, we haven’t decided what memberships we want to take. We are going to the States in December and will visit a few there.

Q: So is this part of a wider global trend?

A: Yes it is. It’s called democratic education, which is a very American term. When you Google democratic schools there are a bunch of models. It is basically a direction or movement
towards intrinsic motivation, trusting your child to learn. What neuroscience is also showing us learning through abstract concepts, a method schools are very versed in (i.e. reading, writing and math) introduced in earlier years is counterproductive, because we never evolved with those concepts, we evolved learning through concrete experience, that is how our right brain works. We now know the right brain is responsible for intuition, emotional intelligence, creativity; and the left brain is reading, writing and maths and any other linear, process oriented thinking. It’s interesting those pathways are like a corn field, you only see where you walk. If you only walk a particular way then you give no chance to other pathways.

Q: Does ERO recognise your school?

A: We will see what they come back with from our recent review. The curriculum and methods had to be approved for us to even be able to start the school. From there we were provisionally registered and now they are completing the review.

Q: What have been your biggest challenges?

A: I think it is educating parents. Engaging with parents is the biggest opportunity for me, it is challenging, but parental education is everything I have just talked about, not just neuroscience of how children learn, but also what kind of world view we are giving them, what we should be educating for. If we keep giving children education around the same things then we will get the same outcome, just look at the world today and try explaining to kids that 40% of wildlife is gone just in my lifetime.

Kids on the deck

Q: Do you enjoy what you are doing?

A: I think it is pretty interesting. It is a bit like when you invent something and no one else is doing it, it becomes more exciting and makes you a bit of a pioneer. It gives you lots of energy, which is great. We need to raise thinking kids and it is kind of a thrill to have that validation, whether I talk to a business person or an environmentalist, we seem to be on the right track.

Q: So what are your proudest moments?

A: Being a parent this is hard question, because it’s probably yet to come.

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