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Essential oil for wheels of change

(Photograph) - "We've gone out to find the best practice everywhere and we're using it to bring about the school of the next century," declared the director of communications at Hugh Christie GM Technology School in Tonbridge, Kent.

This is a little-known corner of America which could have saved education minister Eric Forth the trouble of his recent United States mission to find yet more surprising cures for educational ills.

Hugh Christie is one of two British comprehensives to join the American League of Essential Schools - a growing movement which, if largely unknown here, has 800 members in the US.

Tonbridge, where the pin-striped commuter was probably invented, is scarcely Alabama. But it might as well be. For the past 18 months teams of pupils and teachers have made regular trans-Atlantic sorties to be trained in the American way. The school is about to establish a video link, enabling even closer contact with their partner schools there. And this week Ted Sizer, the educational guru who started the Essential movement, is descending on his English outpost to spread the word at the first UK conference.

He ought to be pretty satisfied with the results so far. An inspectors' report from the Office for Standards in Education says 84 per cent of lessons are "sound or better". Which in their terminology is "good" and "very good" in normal-speak. The ethos of the school is also "good".

"A sense of shared purpose exists and relationships are open and friendly, " they write. "Pupils are responsible, tolerant of each other and cooperative. Behaviour is good and there is an effective system of pastoral support. "

Despite such plaudits, neither Hugh Christie nor its big American brothers have been graced with an official visit from Mr Forth - who preferred instead to tour schemes in which failing schools are handed over to private corporations. Nor is one likely. For while Essential Schools is unmistakeably American, it also smells powerfully of the early 1970s - an aroma not much in favour at Sanctuary Buildings.

A bold rising sun has replaced the armorial shield at Hugh Christie and shines a vigorous yellow from the major internal walls. School rules have been abolished and replaced with a series of worthy aims devised by the students and picked out in clear black letters below. Worst of all, the traditional lines of authority have been snapped, producing what headteacher Dr Chris Gerry terms "an anti-institution institution".

Pupils who under the previous regime may have had to summon up courage to utter a simple "good morning" if the headteacher approached have suddenly been landed with a weight of responsibility. As well as devising the school aims, they decided shortly after Dr Gerry's arrival, to replace the uniform tie and blazer with a grey sweatshirt.

The language is unfathomable or, at any rate, foreign. Visitors to what is quite plainly a library are introduced to "the flexible learning area with the facilities for supported self-study" or the "open-access opportunity". The Essential scheme is "a non-threatening model to re-engineer, reinvent the school from the ground upwards". And the result is, apparently, auto-catalytic.

This may sound like a message from Arthur Andersen's Houston office, or possibly the Moon. But the results seem unarguable. Hundreds of children regularly spend time after school in the library with its banks of computers and support staff. The GCSE results have improved 6 per cent in terms of those getting grades A to C. The staff speak like converts, as do the pupils - at least those presented to visitors in the head's office - who even seem impressed with the technical talk of "taking responsibility for their own learning".

So what is Essential Schools all about? That is difficult to pin down, but appears to revolve around cooperation between children and teachers and attempts to persuade pupils to approach education in an adult fashion as practised (supposedly) at university rather than at many traditional schools where, it is said, the teacher dispenses facts and the pupils write them down.

"It's definitely for the better," said 14-year-old Will Ripley. "It's a new way of looking at things. There's more communication." "They sit down and explain things better to you," said 15-year-old Sam Walters. "People are thinking for themselves," said Jennifer Daly from the same year group.

The new regime has certainly brought about a maelstrom of meetings. Meetings before, during and after school for both pupils and teachers. For example, every child in Year 7 (the first year) is part of a small consultative group which regularly meets with a member of staff to talk about school life. "This is not a panacea," says the surprisingly pragmatic Dr Gerry. "It's not all milk and honey tomorrow. It's a tough, hard-nosed approach which needs to be carefully articulated."

The bright new world at Hugh Christie is certainly entertaining. There are video noticeboards and a school radio programme which broadcasts at break; initiatives which, like the introduction of new technology equipment, the trips abroad and the attempt to reduce class sizes, have required additional money. This the school has shrewdly obtained through GM status, City Technology College status and sponsorship from ICL.

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