Schools before their time: Self Regulated Learning and the Dalton Plan
Schools before their time: Self Regulated Learning and the Dalton Plan

Schools before their time: Self Regulated Learning and the Dalton Plan

Self-regulated learning (SRL) is effectively how you go about learning something, in your own way, in your own time and ideally what subjects you learn. It’s also very individual, some will prefer one-way others another and this may change depending on the topic and material at hand or any other factor that could influence your learning experience.

However, developing our self-regulated learning skills is in itself a learning process. How do you discover what learning methods work best for you if you have not experienced them? It is very likely the bulk of your educational experience was of didactic teaching. With a teacher, quite likely in front of the class, telling you about things and using a blackboard/chalkboard or modern-day smartboard to present things more visually.

Now, what if the way a school is set up helps and encourages self-regulated learning? Educational establishments that support self-regulated learning let students discover not only what learning techniques work best for them, but also when learning works best for them, e.g. when to take breaks or not.

These ideas are by no means new. Around the turn of the 20th century (1900s) Helen Parkhurst a student of Maria Montessori and inspired by educational thinkers and reformers such as John Dewey and Horace Mann, developed the Dalton Plan. An educational theory with the objectives of enhancing students social skills, responsibility towards others as well as promoting independence and dependability and tailoring educational programs to each student’s individual needs, interests and abilities. This was done through three core principles laboratory, house and assignment.

Her book “Education on the Dalton Plan” has been published in 58 languages (Parkhurst, 1922).

To put her ideas into practice, she founded the Dalton School in New York in 1919, which still exists today as an independent, co-educational day school using the Dalton Plan and promoting Parkhurst’s educational system (,

Dalton Plan Internationally

Parkhurst’s idea spread to other schools in America and around the world, including the United Kingdom who adopted the plan in whole or adapted it. The following list of schools is by no means an exhaustive and I plan to update as and when I come across any other schools that adopted the Dalton Plan (Sources : The Dalton School, 2020; van den Berg, 2006; Lee, 200; Stewart, 1968). It is appreciated many no longer follow the Dalton Plan for one reason or another and it is always interesting to see why schools decided to opt for the Dalton plan and why they no longer do.

United States

  • South Philadelphia State School – More details below
  • The Dalton School (

United Kingdom

  • Bryanston: Adopted the plan when the school was founded in 1928 and still uses the plan today.
  • St Trinneans, Scotland: Name sound familiar? Find out why
  • King Alfred School
  • Tiffin School: Adopted until the headmaster who supported it left.
  • Rosa Bassett School (Originally ‘Streatham Secondary School’ renamed in 1951) – More details below

School Experiences / Case Studies

Streatham Secondary School 1920 – 1951
Rosa Bassett School 1951 – 1977

Old photo of Streatham County Secondary School

[The information on Rosa Bassett School was compiled from reminiscences by former pupils, teachers and heads given in the school magazine ‘The Pimpernel’ particularly the 1956 (Golden Jubilee) and 1977 (Final edition). As well as interviews with former pupils.]

Rosa Bassett School is interesting in showing how the plan was introduced to a medium-sized Grammar school and continued to be used for 57 years in modified formats that integrated with the UKs educational standards until the school merged with Battersea Boys School and Furzedown.

Rosa Bassett School was a single sex, girls school that originated as Stockwell County Secondary School in 1906. By the time it had moved from it’s site in Stockwell, London to Furzedown in Streatham in 1914 it was already regarded as unusual and known for its freedom of its organisation and the House system run by the girls themselves (Kastell, 1956). It is of interest that there was a House system at Rosa Bassett school before the introduction of the Dalton Plan, where House is one of the core concepts. Khan and Sadler, (The Pimpernel, 1977) place the date of the introduction of the House system in 1909 while Bradshaw and Cosens (The Pimpernel, 1956) state 1912.

The Dalton Plan was introduced to the school in 1920, by the headmistress Miss Rosa Bassett after she visited the Dalton School in America. The plan was introduced with the support of the school governors and the local county council, although from reports some members of staff initially had misgivings about it.

It appears there was a period of preparation, mainly producing the Dalton Plan Assignments and organising the Laboratory before the actual plan was trialled with the students initially during the two weeks before the summer holidays in 1920.

Miss Davies the Headmistress who followed on from Miss Rosa Bassett states about the Dalton Plan:

South Philadelphia High School for Girls

The Dalton Plan was introduced to the Philadelphia High School for Girls at about the same time as Rosa Bassett School in 1923 and staff agreed through a secret vote of 90% in favour to trial the Dalton Plan for year. The agreement being that if it failed it would be because of a personal failure and not one of the plan.

Integration of the Dalton Plan

The Laboratory and Free Study

Integral to the Dalton Plan was the freedom the Laboratory setting gave students to work. Both at Rosa Bassett and South Philadephia High School for Girls, this blended a proportion of normal teaching sessions in a school day with remaining periods being given over to Free Study. During these periods students were able to study as they wished, where, what, when and how. Students could choose to work in the library, the school hall or in the classrooms during these periods, but had to remain on the school premises. Students, if they wished, could leave all their work for homework. However, with all the resources being at school this was unlikely. The environment also provided opportunities for students to choose how they worked such as individually, collaboratively or visiting a teacher.

An important aspect was that teachers as well as being available during Free Study periods remained in their respective appointed subject/resource rooms. This is contrary to some systems where teachers do not have a specific room and have to move from classroom to classroom. During ‘Free Study’ teachers could expect anywhere between 2 – 30 students who would be of all ages and stages. This meant that each child had individual access to a subject mistress who could help her at the moment some difficulty arose (Bozman, 1956).

A similar mixing of different groups was also found at South Philadephia High School for Girls

An important outcome was that students were empowered to approach teachers with confidence. During Free Study, the teacher’s role changed to ‘facilitator’, organising groups and the physical classroom where possible to best enable the mixture of students. There were, however, set arrangements for some subjects particularly practical ones such as the sciences at Rosa Bassett (Bozman, 1956).

At the Philadelphia High School for Girls about 25% was given to whole class activity and or meetings with the rest of the time being flexible to meet the needs of group and assignments (Members of the Faculty of the South Philadelphia High School for Girls, 1927, p. 15). However students had at most 50% of their time free as the rest was given over to fixed periods for assemblies, luncheon, physical education, chorus, art, foods, clothing and club.

Staff at Philadelphia High School for Girls found, through experience, that the first assignment for each new term should be as its objective to teach children, concretely, how to study. Such as how to use the dictionary or an encyclopedia, use an index or get the meat out of a paragraph. Students for the first few weeks of the term would follow the standard roster or timetable with little or no freedom. By the end of this period the abilities of each child could be gauged and an idea of how much freedom to allow each child could have decided.

A similar system seems to have been in place at Rosa Bassett where the amount of Free-Study time made available to pupils increased with each older year group.

Was Free-Study effective?

At Rosa Bassett, visitors would often remark on how well students were studying quietly in the hall and ask who was in charge, to which the answer was ‘nobody’. However, Bozman (1956) also recalls that Miss Bassett would occasionally check in on the work being done in the hall.

Evidence that this quiet self-study is not an isolated case is also noted in the report by South Philadelphia High School report for Girls (1927), where Farr (1927) reports that overnight the library showed an increased use and for the correct reasons. Free Study periods allowing students the time to pick when they wanted to use it as a resource rather than being restricted to very specific times of the day, which had previously resulted in after school rushes of 280 students to the library that seated 80 to find and use the limited resources. As the Assignments meant they could schedule what to learn over a longer time frame, there was a more consistent demand for the limited resources. Figure 1 below shows the significant increase in library use by students from before the Dalton Plan (1923-1924) to after (1924-1925).

Graph showing the very marked increased usage of the library under the Dalton Plan
Figure 1: Number of student readers each month using the school library before (1923-1924) and after (1924-1925) implementation of the Dalton Plan at South Philadephia High School for Girls. Adapted from Farr (1927).

Staff at the Philadelphia High School comment that an outstanding feature of the Dalton Plan was that it encouraged individual differences in learning and habit forming, the effectiveness summed up by the comment,

Further support for the Dalton Plan comes from the opportunity to learn just as much from failures at a task. There is an account given by Kastell (1956) of an endeavour by a group of students during the war to start a chicken syndicate. This, unfortunately, ran into problems involving responsibility for feeding and cleaning the hens out and was shut down. However, as Kastell points out she learnt from school an “everlasting belief in the value of freedom, freedom to work alone and freedom to organise things for oneself….”. She continues that the plan also taught her “…the importance of playing one’s part in any community, to be a citizen of the world as well as a citizen of school… …a firm conviction that it is those who put most into school life, who contribute most, who get most fun out of it.

The Assignment

The Assignment is integral and supportive to the Laboratory; such that the Laboratory creates the physical and organisational space to carry out self-regulated learning, but the Assignment provided the plans for this to happen. In all the accounts both from Rosa Bassett School and South Philadelphia High School for Girls, the Assignment does not appear to have been a formal contract, but an agreement of what needs to be completed.

Timetables were individualised and students and teachers from Rosa Bassett do remember clearly the copies of the timetable which showed the times of fixed lessons and free study periods for them on a regular basis (Bozman, 1956; Jewill Hill, 1977; Perrot, 1956). It also set out that month’s work and what had to be learnt. In the days before photocopying, this was apparently through the use of handwritten timetables which were then copied using hectograph jelly.

The Assignment was a challenge to teachers, as it meant the development of new syllabuses and setting in advance assignments for what needed to be completed. For Perrot (1956) a history teacher at Rosa Bassett, she comments the Assignments gave her a thrill of developing very satisfactory types of syllabuses. Bozman, a maths teacher, also reflects this,

The House system

In the Dalton Plan today the House system is still a fundamental component with all four years mixing together in the High School at the Dalton School in New York (The Dalton School, 2007a).

At Rosa Bassett School, comments made by Miss Davies as well as other authors indicate that there was a thriving school community with friendly competitiveness between the houses in various sports and activities, including at one point in the school life ‘gardening’ where plots of land had been given to each house and each house tried to grow plants in their house colour.

As commented on earlier, a House system was in place at Rosa Bassett School for several years before the Dalton Plan was implemented which engendered to students the feeling of being part of a community and team competitiveness. It would therefore seem that although the House system is an integral part of the Dalton Plan it can act independently of the other two elements of Assignment and Laboratory which relating to students academic life appear to be interdependent on each other.

At South Philadelphia High School for Girls, Wilson’s (1927) comments on the House system are that the Dalton Plan requires a socialised environment so that each student was not only just a participant in the life of their immediate group but also to have the groups in “such constant interaction that no individual, no economic group could presume to live independently of others.” However, Wilson also comments that individualised instruction had been previously attacked in the United States because of a) segregation of children into their abilities and the need for b) individual assignments. The Dalton Plan by setting standard targets to be met by specific times therefore does not require the development of individual assessments and was able to blend into the standard assessment methods currently then used by the educational departments.

Dealing with less academic students

At Rosa Bassett School, Jones (1956) reports that non-academic girls were never regarded as inferior and were always found opportunities through the resourcefulness of the headmistress to be in service to the community and gain a sense of “fulfilment and self-confidence”.

At the Philadelphia High School for Girls (Wilson, 1927) the system allowed for a student to be put back onto the timetabled lessons for a specific subject or for all subjects. To put back onto a timetable was regarded as something of a discredit (“greatest of disgraces”) and therefore to be avoided. It is commented that this only affected 2% of students who were noted to have fallen behind by a 1 month. Students who had done so were given no free periods, but given help to catch up, doing 6 months work in 5 months. Wilson comments that students who had fallen behind during this time developed the study planning and organisation skills that they were lacking.

It could be argued that if students who had fallen behind could be made to do 6 months work in 5 under a timetabled regime as opposed to a more open and self-regulated approach what is the advantage of the latter? One answer is that a timetabled regime does not encourage the development of self-regulated learning skills and the advantages that this entails such as skills for life long learning (Smith (2001) citing Zimmerman (1986)). It is also possible that the teaching system under the Dalton Plan allows for teachers to spend more time with specific students and therefore able to do 6 months work in 5 for this small proportion, but this would be impossible to do for the whole school.

Possible obstacles to the Dalton Plan

There are however a number of unanswered questions, including why the Dalton Plan was not continued and taken up after the school merger of Rosa Bassett School with Battersea Boys School and Furzedown School.

Watered Down

It is commented that the Dalton Plan by the time it was practised in the 1960s was a watered-down version (Jerden, 2007). Even when it started, the Dalton Plan as implemented at Rosa Bassett School was actually known as a modified version (Bozman, 1956; Davies, 1956; Major-Stevenson, 1956; Perrot, 1956) dropping monthly tests, as these and the planning of the next syllabuses were found to be excessively heavy work and continued to be modified over the years to adapt to changing circumstances.

However, the Dalton Plan is not a set of rules but a set of guiding principles (Wilson, 1927), such that it can be used to adapt to any situation.

Academics only?

It is possible that the Dalton Plan is only really effective for individuals who are academic and not for those who have more practical skills. Some support for this comes from Lillia Gillies, Chairman of the Governors in 1977 (Gillies, 1977) who comments that the amalgamation of the schools (Rosa Bassett with Battersea Boys and Furzedown) will make the schools more open to all and not just the academically inclined.

The role of the teacher

A potential fear for educationalists is a change in role and perhaps becoming redundant. Mixed in with this are possible concerns over discipline or control of the classroom as the Free Study periods are not structured and as Wilson (1927) puts it, very much like a four-ring circus. It would appear that the Dalton Plan does demand more of a teacher. During Free Study periods teachers take on the role of facilitator, with the teacher taking on a more important and greater role than before and one which requires different skills to direct and control the activity of each individual and still remain “hands off” (Wilson, 1927).

Teacher to student ratio

Tied to the role of the teacher is the student to teacher ratio and it could be considered that the number of teachers to students has influenced the willingness to uptake the Free Study periods. When Miss Davies joined the school in 1926 the student to staff ratio was 650:30 or approximately 21:1 (Davies, 1956). Rosa Bassett School has undergone two amalgamations the first with Battersea Boys School and Furzedown School in 1977, and these then again amalgamated with Ensham School in 1986 to become what is currently Graveney School (Graveney School, 2007). Graveney School although it has a large number of students (1815 pupils in 2002) it actually has a lower teacher to student ratio by having 110.3 full-time equivalent staff (Zachary, 2002), a ratio of around 16:1. The average class size nonetheless at Graveney then for Key Stage 3 and 4 would be 23. It is unlikely therefore that student to teacher ratio is a major factor, although the sheer number of students might be.

House – a sense of community?

For many students moving to large schools from their middle schools is like moving from a village setting to a city. Larger schools are also a problem for a House system which is aimed at putting students within a much smaller social setting as it is only effective if the House system is a community, and each individual within it has a role to play. However, to feel part of the community and take an active role, those roles need to available and students encouraged to take those roles. But the larger the community the more roles that are needed for students.

At Glyn Technology School, Epsom one of the few remaining state all-boys schools, they have endeavoured to counter increased student numbers by increasing the number of Houses, raising the number of Houses it has from 5 in 1986 to 7 by 2007 (Glyn Technology School, 2006). To encourage mixing between the year groups Glyn school introduced a Vertical Tutoring system in 2005 which puts students from different years together in the same form rather than have students from the same year (Jones, 2007). Although it needs to be noted that form periods, registration in the morning and afternoon, account for very short times during the day.

In contrast, Graveney School which also has a House system (Graveney School, 2007) has only 3 Houses, which makes for much larger groupings of 605 in each house.


When the Dalton Plan was launched at Rosa Bassett school in 1920, there was considerable interest and during a series of special open days, it is reported that thousands of visitors from the United Kingdom and abroad came to see the plan in action and question (Clark, 1956). Use of a modified Dalton Plan at Rosa Bassett School continued for 57 years until 1977 when the school amalgamated with two other schools. During that time teachers who came to the school and taught using the modified Dalton Plan were impressed enough to comment that when they moved on they tried to implement many of the ideas in their new schools (Cutler, 1956; Kastell, 1956).

It is unclear why the Dalton Plan did not gain more widespread interest in the UK, although Gillies (1977) notes that many of the concepts, such as assignments and pupil choice are now widespread in schools, especially primary schools. It is very possible that a problem with the Dalton Plan was the effort involved in creating the individualised Assignments and ideally constant feedback on progress from assessments, etc. As already noted this combination was dropped very early on because of the extortionate load it placed on teachers. However, in today’s information rich environment, there is a role for a system that can enable teachers to become the powerful facilitators of education evident in open democratic education systems or self-regulated learning educational systems such as the Dalton Plan. The technology and knowledge to help organise class schedules to enable blended learning with free study periods and also provide almost continuous, even self-requested assessment is already here.

[This article is based on updated unpublished academic research carried out in 2007]



  1. Arnold Attard

    Interesting, although the ‘Plan’ seems to be well suited for girls in general.
    Boys are quite different in their attitudes and require more coercive methods.

    1. The evidence as it stands does not support this. It’s also based I feel on a deep-rooted but inherently inaccurate ‘boys are different from girls’ point of view. While there is some anecdotal evidence that SRL does not suit every child (boy or girl) and those individuals may benefit from a more regimented way of learning. SRL and/or the Dalton Plan have been practised for a long while for both boys and girls – and still being used (Dalton schools international In the UK it was also used by at least one all-boys school, Tiffin, in the UK for a while and still being used in a modified form at Bryanston (a mixed intake school). Many countries also use a self-regulated approach as part of their mainstream public education and are more successful educationally.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *