This is not the traditional way of "setting" children by ability, in which the teacher decides and the child has no say. This is letting the children think and decide for themselves: whether they have been coasting but are ready for a challenge, or whether they prefer to progress more gently. Seeing real pieces of work that exemplify what they have to do to meet the standards expected at different levels of the national curriculum helps them to make their choices.
A child's self-esteem, which is so easily damaged by being placed by someone else into a lower set, is boosted by the power and control invested in making an assessment of his or her own learning skills. Morale, motivation and results among pupils of all abilities at Ninestiles Secondary in a none-too-affluent suburb of south Birmingham have all improved since the trial scheme was introduced two terms ago.
How to prepare today's learners for the future would seem to be the hot topic in education, if two conferences on the issue last week are any sign. The issue is exercising the minds of academics and teachers, fuelled by a fear that the current agenda of targets and tables could be creating an environment in schools that may squash the talents and techniques that we need to encourage. The passport to the future is, we are being told, via self-directed learning, rather than teacher-directed teaching.
Producing children who want to learn, and know how to learn, should be the goal of all schools. Research continues to demonstrate that more self- direction contributes to raising achievement, and gives children relevant personal and learning skills for the future. The brain is known to become more efficient at learning and thinking when people feel they have choice and are in control of what they do, and less so when they are not.
Andrew Pollard, professor of education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol, whose interest is the child's view of learning, is critical of the Government's "measure everything" culture.
"By setting up so many hurdles for children, it can undermine the faith they need to have in themselves when they confront a new task," he says.
This, he believes, can affect their attitude to learning in the longer term. Just as damaging, he feels, is the way structured and target-focused schools are creating an instrumentalist attitude in children as they try to make the grade, making it less likely that they will become the flexible, innovative, creative type of adult that the future demands.
Mike Hughes, author of several books on learning, and headteacher of Lakers School - an 11-16 comprehensive in Gloucester - agrees, but he has found ways to work within the constraints imposed by recent governments. As department head in his previous school he compared results of his geography class, run on self-directed, flexible lines, with those of a class taught by a more traditional colleague. He found, he says, "a massive impact both on results and motivation" of the flexible approach. Some children who showed interest did GCSE in two terms, getting grade As.
His method was to negotiate an individual work plan with each child in his class, and then encourage each one to reflect, as the year progressed, on how he or she best learnt, in terms of time management, research style and type of resources, paying attention at each stage to the results achieved. Now, at Lakers School, Hughes is making a conscious attempt to build the school of the future today.
At the same time as delivering on exam results, he has introduced motivation workshops for his year-11 GCSE students, promoted individual learning programmes at key stage 4 - the GCSE years - which incorporate a range of choices, and established a system in which every child is regularly taken off timetable to reflect on his or her learning in terms of both progress and process.
"People think that either children are sitting in rows learning, or they're messing about. If you let children work in their own, chosen way, the assumption is that it's not rigorous, but Lakers delivers motivation and academic results", says Hughes.
Eric Cymbir, head of Wilbraham Primary School in Manchester, is another advocate for self-directed learning. While some may think that giving disruptive children any freedom to choose is asking for trouble, Cymbir says the opposite is the case.
"The more children are given responsibility for themselves and their learning, the more this flows through to their behaviour," he says. "All your life you have choices. It's our job to help children prepare for this, and seek what they need to know to make responsible choices.".
Wilbraham's behaviour policy is based on choice, and children are given as much of it in the classroom as the national curriculum and literacy hours will allow. For example, a teacher may begin a project on electricity by asking children what they already know, then what they'd like to find out, with children with similar interests working in small groups before sharing their findings. He believes children should be able to work as adults do - in fits and starts.
"The timing and pace of children's work is part of their decision-making," he says. In Cymbir's view, choices and consequences, crucially balanced by high expectations tailored to the starting-point of each child, and by a culture of mutual respect, promote the motivation to get results.
But few schools have gone as far in implementing the "start from the child" principle as Ninestiles School in Birmingham. Teachers let all students aged between 11 and 14 decide for themselves the level at which they feel capable of working, in all academic subjects. To help them make an informed choice, as well as offering detailed feedback on work completed to date and devoting lessons to teaching the skills for self-evaluation, staff have pinned examples of real pieces of work on walls around the school. Each sample is annotated to explain why it is indicative of one of four levels it represents for each age group. Tests, classwork and homework are all differentiated, and students can even choose what level of homework task to complete. They work in pairs to moderate each other's work, having assessed themselves on an evaluation sheet when they hand work in.
These measures combined give everyone a clear picture of what to aim at. Children are urged to aim high and not follow what their friends do. Lesson time is set aside to help them make the right choice, although the final decision is theirs. This has generally avoided the problem of children with a low sense of self-worth (or who are just lazy) opting for easier levels of work, or children pushing themselves harder than they can cope with.
Gurpige Singh, 14, generally chose national curriculum levels five or six, just above average for his age, but in religious education he first opted for level four - the average expected of an 11 year-old. Six months later, he has progressed to level six here too. He is delighted with self- directed learning.
"I feel in charge. I know I've made the right choices, because in some subjects I have improved really well. You should start where you feel comfortable and then move on up or down at the end of each term. The teacher should help you choose but shouldn't decide. The teacher doesn't know what you're capable of. Only you know that."
Nikki Glaze, also 14, says: "Before, working with people of lower levels, I didn't have to compete. Now I have to keep up. My vocabulary's got better in written work, because the teacher uses longer words with our class. The way I talk to the teacher is better, and I join in discussions more.
"If the teacher had chosen what level I should be at and I disagreed, I wouldn't have liked it at all. You're always trying to work yourself up, but I don't feel under pressure. It's as if you're working yourself up a ladder, just one step at a time."
Dexter Hutt, Ninestiles's headteacher, is delighted with the results so far. "It's all about feedback and letting them see, step by step, how to improve. Pupils are highly motivated by this scheme, and are learning how to learn. I'm really proud of what my staff have created."
Ian Gilbert, a former French teacher and director of Independent Thinking, a company that promotes effective thinking within schools and business, cites the need for learners to have a feeling of control over their learning as one of seven keys to motivation in the classroom.
"When people have choices," Gilbert explains, "certain chemicals are released into the brain that aid thinking and learning. Endorphins, and the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, are produced when people feel positive about a task. By contrast, when people lack choice, and feel compelled and hopeless, the brain produces norepinephrine, which has a strong inhibiting effect, lowering morale and motivation and making learning inefficient."
We are said to be entering a world in which the predominant culture will be "stick shift" rather than "automatic". This phrase, coined by Robert Kegan, the Harvard educationist, describes how everyone will have to assume more responsibility for themselves in every aspect of life. It will also be a world, according to Peter B Vaill, the American business writer, of "permanent white water", dominated by change and uncertainty. Shooting these rapids will require confidence, creativity, determination, self- knowledge and an ability to paddle as part of a crew, for we shall all be in this boat.
Chris Watkins, who heads a department for effective learning at London University's Institute of Education, says this means getting children used to setting directions, setting their own goals, coping with change and learning how to learn. Many companies expect the same of their employees. It certainly mirrors the Government's desire to increase self-reliance, particularly in relation to welfare benefits. Government should therefore grasp the paddles, and ensure that all children know how to use them. Some schools have already begun.
Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer is author of `Motivating Your Child': tools and tactics to help your child be a self-starter, published by VermilionReuse content