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Boring timetable out; skills confident pupils in

History, geography and RE ditched

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History, geography and RE ditched

Head insists she's not `thrown the baby out with the bathwater'

When Maggie Haynes took over Tasker Milward VC School two years ago, she brought a new teaching philosophy with her.

Seeing how bored some of her Year 8s were, she became convinced she had to rip up the traditional timetable and start again.

She had a tough job convincing teachers and parents that her plans - based on a concept exported from England - were not just a gimmick.

But last September, the school, in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, embarked upon a skills-driven timetable designed to engage the disaffected and stretch the most able.

Now, all pupils have 20 hours of such lessons every fortnight. To accommodate this, history, geography, RE and PSE have been ditched, along with four hours of English, two hours of maths and science, and one hour of modern foreign languages and Welsh.

"It was always very obvious to me that the best learning took place when it wasn't content-driven but skills-driven," she told TES Cymru.

"The national curriculum was getting very content-heavy - quite honestly, it was boring," she says.

Many schools in England have pioneered a similar skills-driven approach to learning using the Opening Minds curriculum, which is designed to give young people the skills and competencies to thrive in the "real world".

Hailing from the RSA, the charity that promotes the arts, Opening Minds has been hyped as equipping young people for adult life in the 21st- century. Pupils are taught by one teacher for most of the curriculum, combining a variety of subjects in project-based lessons.

But the idea has not really caught on in Wales, despite the Assembly government's enthusiasm for skills-based learning and the fact that many of the curriculum's topics are comparable with those studied in the vocationally led Welsh baccalaureate.

After researching how the curriculum works in English schools and being impressed by their success, Ms Haynes was even more determined to try it.

"We wanted pupils to have these transferable skills - to be independent, articulate, involved in their learning, able to participate and able to work in a team," she says. "Above all, we wanted them to enjoy it."

Teachers were initially sceptical, as were parents. But, says Ms Haynes: "I told them (the parents) this is something I positively believe will make their children better and they will enjoy school more. This is not an experiment."

With encouragement from the government and Pembrokeshire council, including a small amount of funding towards new laptops, the timetable took shape.

Pupils have a two-hour block of skills lessons every day, based on a different theme each half-term. Topics include new beginnings; myself; my community; Wales, Europe and the world; and taking risks.

Rather than learning parrot-fashion, children are encouraged to find out things for themselves by conducting their own research and working in groups.

"If we tell them what they need to discover, they do it," says Ms Haynes. "They are taking responsibility for their own learning."

Almost without knowing it, pupils are developing their maths, English and IT skills and acquiring new knowledge through their desire to investigate.

Ms Haynes says they are already seeing positive effects. Since last September, not one Year 7 has been excluded, bad behaviour is rare, and attendance is 93 per cent, far higher than for any other year group.

"The children have become very confident and questioning," says Ms Haynes. "They are not putting limits on their own learning, they are taking ownership. The more able and talented are absolutely flying. They take on the role of the experts in the class for their peers."

Richard Jones, assistant head and a Year 7 skills group leader, says he has seen a huge change in his pupils. "I could see the Year 7s not being extended as much as they could be," he says. "Now their confidence has improved. If they finish a task early now, they don't sit quietly - they go and do another task or help someone else."

In Year 8, the number of skills lessons are halved and the more traditional subjects are phased in.

"You don't throw the baby out with the bathwater," says Ms Haynes. "We don't want to lose the expertise that subject specialists bring to a secondary school. In terms of outcomes, we will see the benefits of this at key stage 4, when I believe we will have confident, independent learners."

Tasker Milward's approach is already attracting interest from neighbouring schools. This week, Ms Haynes and some of her team addressed a conference in Llandudno on effective education.

"There's nothing that says we have to do things the way we've always done them," she says. "Society has changed and the way we teach has to change."

`My Year 7s question everything now'

The move towards a skills-based curriculum at Tasker Milward wouldn't have succeeded without the "passion and commitment" of her staff, says Maggie Haynes.

Nine teachers from a variety of teaching backgrounds were chosen to form a skills team. They included two science teachers, a maths teacher, an RE and English teacher, the head of vocational education, a Welsh teacher, the assistant head, a special needs teacher and a psychologist.

Scott Hammett, the maths specialist, jumped at the chance to be part of the new curriculum.

"I was excited about it from the word go. It matched what I was trying to do with my maths classes by making the pupils discover answers and find things out for themselves," he said.

Mr Hammett admits that adapting to the new curriculum has been a "learning curve", but the change in his pupils has convinced him it is the right approach.

"With some pupils, there's no comparison between their primary school reports and where they are now. I can't believe what I'm seeing from them," he said.

"I have confident, self-aware students in Year 7. They question everything now. They can put you on the spot sometimes. I don't think any of them want to go back to more structured, traditional lessons."

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