Brave new world: Traditional classrooms, lessons - and even homework - have been expelled
Tony Blair's vision of academies as innovative and free from state control became a reality last week.
Thursday 13 November 2008
The Duke of Edinburgh smiles, looking a tad bemused at the job he is undertaking – opening a school that is pioneering a radical new approach to learning. Just about everything that the Government has imposed on schools or encouraged over the last decade is being thrown out to make way for a skills-based curriculum called Opening Minds.
The national curriculum has been torn up, except as a broad framework, as have normal timetables and classroom walls. Lessons last an amazing three hours. Class sizes are big and homework is no more. Welcome to the school of the 21st century.
This is the latest of the Government's 131 flagship academies, a new school devised by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) of which the Duke is the President. The children say they feel honoured that he has come to visit Tipton, a sprawling residential area near Dudley in the West Midlands. "If you're posh, you wouldn't live in Tipton," explains a pupil.
This new school – the RSA Academy – is being overseen by Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector who united the education world with his plans for an overarching school leaving diploma, only to see it rejected by the Government. Now he has the chance to put some of his ideas into practice. Big changes in the way the school is organised are being introduced and in two years' time the buildings will be demolished as children move into a £30m new structure on the site of Willingsworth High School, the 11-16 comprehensive it is replacing.
"We have set out to do something different," says the principal, Michael Gernon. "We want to be a pioneer." It will be nearer than most academies to the Blairite vision of an innovative, private state school, able to run its own affairs. Significantly, chief executive of the RSA is Matthew Taylor, Tony Blair's chief policy adviser when he was in Downing Street.
The national curriculum has been the first thing to go, although maths English and science have been kept, making way for five areas of life skills or competencies. Subject departments have been rearranged into three broad "schools" or areas of knowledge. The 30-lesson-a-week timetable has been replaced by eight lessons – each lasting three hours. Classroom walls have been removed to provide large spaces for lessons of up to 90 with team teaching and breakout activities.
In the brave new world of the RSA Academy there are no bells or children jostling in corridors because they are moving lessons every hour. There's no homework and no after-school clubs. Instead, there's a slightly longer day and two half-days a week devoted to enrichment activities for everyone, not just for those able to stay after school.
"The most common comment we hear from teachers and students is that three hours isn't enough," says Gernon, who transformed another local comprehensive before a spell with the DCSF and a job with KPMG, the consultancy firm. Other breaks from the past include a five-term year, mixed age tutor groups, which meet for 30 minutes a day, and free breakfasts for staff and students who eat together at staged intervals during the morning.
"Our approach to teaching and learning is unique and is based on the Opening Minds curriculum," says Gernon. "This is a set of competencies and skills that challenge students in their ability to think and to learn. It helps them to manage people, information and situations, all of which will lead them towards being good citizens capable of influencing the world in which they will live."
He has big plans for the school. Subject departments have been rearranged into three broad "schools" – maths, science and technology; arts, humanities, sports, and leisure and language and communications. Teachers work together across subject boundaries to deliver the competencies – learning, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information.
"We pick out those bits of content that we feel are relevant and we couple those with key competence areas," he says.
Haven't we heard this somewhere before? Wasn't the failure of discovery learning, themed projects and cross-curricular teaching in the Sixties and Seventies the very reason the national curriculum was brought in, to ensure that children received the same basic entitlement, wherever they were educated? Today's young people can get knowledge at the click of a button, says Sally Weale, the acting head of the former school who is now the deputy principal. What they need are skills and confidence. "Students are enjoying learning more now," she says. "It is not something being done to them."
In fact, they are getting more actual subject teaching because staff don't have to go over things repeatedly, she explains. "I teach English. In the past, if I wanted students to compare two poems we would have to read one on a Tuesday and the next on a Thursday and the following week when you said they were going to compare the two poems they'd ask 'which two poems?' You'd end up spoon feeding them just to get through it. In three hours, you can do the whole thing."
What do the pupils think of their new school? Without exception they welcome the end of homework and the two half-day enrichment sessions. All but some of the younger ones who find it tiring, praise the three-hour lessons, saying they get much more done.
For Aidan Smith, 14, the academy has transformed his life. Three-hour lessons make it much easier to get things done, he says. "In business studies, we learn how to use the resources of the internet and do our own research and we learn how to work as a team and about what it means to be a leader.
"These are life skills that we can use outside school. We used to work together in groups but we didn't work as a team with all of us having different roles to play like we do now."
Maths is no longer boring, he says. Indeed, now it's fun because you don't simply sit in the classroom. "We've got a fantastic maths teacher who took us outside and showed us how to use a clinometer to measure the height of the tower block, and the gym and the reception area. That's a life skill. You tell me how many people could stand there and work out the height of a tower block?
"Today's been the best day of my life. I've met the Duke of Edinburgh and because I was doing a presentation my mother was invited and she met him as well. It's been strange to see royalty in Tipton. But you know what I'm thinking? Now I'm at this academy I might be Prime Minister one day."
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