Life's more than just cramming

Under Mike Tomlinson's proposals, pupils will be able to tailor-make part of their exam course. Some schools like the idea. Will ministers? Richard Garner reports
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The Independent Online

Fifteen-year-old Kirsty Palmer is a big fan of the Five television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Until now, her interest in forensic science has been confined to the house. But now, thanks to reforms conceived by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, she is able to use her love of the TV series to foster a love of learning.

Fifteen-year-old Kirsty Palmer is a big fan of the Five television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Until now, her interest in forensic science has been confined to the house. But now, thanks to reforms conceived by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, she is able to use her love of the TV series to foster a love of learning.

A pupil at Sir Bernard Lovell School, a specialist language college on the outskirts of Bristol, Kirsty is finding out what it takes to become a crime-scene investigator as part of her "personal challenge". This is one of the innovations that would come in countrywide under the Tomlinson proposals for 14- to 19-year-olds. Tomlinson's working party is due to finalise its report in October; if the Government accepts its findings, the reforms will be implemented over the next decade.

Another pupil at the school, Nicola Wheeler, 16, is writing a children's book as part of her sixth-form challenge. She hopes it will make primary school pupils more aware of children with disabilities, and her ambition is to become a teacher. As part of the programme she has already delivered a lesson on the subject of children with disabilities at a local primary school.

Both girls are proof that Tomlinson's school revolution is beginning to take effect. Tomlinson's proposals may be in their preliminary stages, but some schools around the country have already taken them up.

Last year, the former chief inspector said that he wanted a dissertation or extended essay to be a part of the diploma that he has devised to replace A-level and GCSE exams. Such an essay, Tomlinson believes, would test youngsters' skills and enable admissions staff to see whether candidates could think as well as cram lists of facts into their heads.

That proposal would solve one of higher education's biggest problems - how to distinguish between the high-flyers who achieve three A-grade passes at A-level.

Now, a year after it was first floated, the idea has evolved into a "personal challenge" for pupils. It can be used both by high-achieving academic students and by those seeking a vocational education, who at present are tempted to quit school after taking their GCSEs. More grandly, it is seen as a way of increasing the number of pupils aged 17 and over who stay on in full-time education. In a recent league table published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UK languishes 27th out of 30 developed Western countries in this regard.

As befits its name (the school was opened by the pioneering physicist and astronomer in 1972), Sir Bernard Lovell School is at the forefront of developing the new proposals. Two members of Tomlinson's Government-backed committee of inquiry into 14-to-19 education, Ken Spours and Ann Hodgson, have been in contact with the school since the scheme's introduction.

It is what you might call an innovative school. It is part of the Kingswood partnership, which comprises all the secondary and primary schools in the neighbourhood. It is also part of the Department for Education and Skills' pathfinder programme - which tests new educational initiatives to see if they work.

David Turrell, the head teacher at Sir Bernard Lovell, thinks that the strength of the personal challenge scheme is that it helps young people to become more emotionally involved in their learning. The students become like detectives, finding out things about their chosen challenge. And they enjoy it because they have chosen a topic that appeals to them. That enjoyment spins off into other areas of school life.

"What it allows them to do is to engage more in their own learning," he says. "They also take some responsibility for their own assessments. It helps them to understand another way of learning."

The school has about 240 GCSE students on the Asdan gold award programme - GCSE's equivalent of the sixth-form challenge. Next year, every pupil in the school will take it.

The range of topics being covered is huge - from making a video about citizenship to rebuilding a Second World War Jeep. One of the most popular is crime: one pupil, for example, is writing an essay on how the criminal justice system works. This has entailed visits to the courts and talks with local magistrates. Another is studying how the mind of a serial killer works.

Since deciding to launch the programme, Sir Bernard Lovell School has been lucky. The Asdan course now qualifies for points on the GCSE-scoring system, with a gold award the equivalent of two-and-a-half GCSEs. One of the main barriers, therefore, to adopting the scheme - that it does not show up in the school's performance - has been removed.

According to Daniel Clompass, head of sixth-form studies at the school, the key to its success lies in whether it will be accepted by universities when determining admissions. Sir Bernard Lovell School is fortunate in that its closest university, the University of the West of England, has agreed to recognise the personal challenge and award students points towards an eventual place. That will be crucial in helping pupils such as the would-be teacher Nicola to attend university.

The finishing touches are still being put to Tomlinson's final report to ministers, but the signs are that the personal challenge and extended essay will form a key part. Tomlinson is expected to widen the variety of personal challenges available, and allow groups of people - like the Sir Bernard pupils working on rebuilding a Jeep - to submit a project.

The education world is expected to welcome the reforms. Even Chris Woodhead, Tomlinson's predecessor as chief inspector, who is otherwise withering in his criticism of the Tomlinson proposals, acknowledges their worth. It looks, therefore, as if they will soon be here to stay.

education@independent.co.uk

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