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Do you dare to set them free?

Stuart Widd acknowledges that leaving pupils to work on their own can be a nerve-racking exercise.

"We place an awful lot of trust and responsibility in our pupils," he said. "People wonder if you send groups of pupils outside to work on their own, can you trust them to do what you want?

"Others say: 'I'll only give them so much time for group work, because they'll only be talking anyway.' But that talking is actually valuable."

Mr Widd, the assistant head at Kesgrave high school in Ipswich, was among the teachers involved in a research project carried out by Brighton and Cambridge universities and London's Institute of Education where group work was introduced into English, science and maths classes.

"Particularly with the crammed curriculum we've got," he said, "and the time constraints we're under, people think, 'I can't spend all that time on group work, I've got to get on.' In fact, group work can be a short-cut to good outcomes."

He said pupils at Kesgrave (right) have gained in confidence. Instead of slipping automatically into note-taking or leader roles within a group, they have learnt to become involved in a variety of tasks.

It is not just their oral work that has improved: Mr Widd noticed a significant difference in written work. "They come out with ideas they might not otherwise have had," he says.

Luke Humphrey, 17, who was among the pupils who participated in the research, agrees.

"People your own age can explain concepts to you in real terms," he said. "You take note of other people's arguments in order to understand your own a bit better."

His classmate, Sarah Winfield, 17, adds: "Obviously, you can't come up with other people's opinions on your own. But hearing them can make you reconsider your own opinions."

Photograph: Brian Harris

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