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First steps to the English bac

Experiment lets 14 to 19 students devise their own cross-curricular projects, reports Warwick Mansell

Six schools and a further education college are taking what could be the first steps towards an English baccalaureate.

The experiment on the outskirts of Bristol is one of the first large-scale attempts to graft some of the principles of the bac on to today's qualifications structure of GCSEs, A-levels and vocational exams.

Central to the changes is a cross-curricular project devised by pupils themselves, an activity which tutors say is already capturing teenagers'


Sir Bernard Lovell comprehensive in the Bristol suburbs is one of the pilot schools. Since September it has given pupils in Year 10 upwards of two periods a week for their project, dubbed a "personal challenge".

Pupils in Years 10 and 11 choose nine six-week modules covering conventional subjects including RE, citizenship and PE. But alongside such traditional classes they are encouraged to do their own projects. The first aim of these, according to a booklet for pupils, is to "have fun".

For example, as part of drugs education, they might organise an event for a charity involved in drugs-related illness. Or they could complete a research study on the causes and effects of crime.

The emphasis on self-driven learning continues in the sixth form. Students have suggested making a fitness video, writing a guide for young people on learning to drive and researching Islamic law.

When The TES visited Sir Bernard Lovell, Martyn Lucas, a sixth-former interested in video production, had just returned from filming a teacher carrying out a research project in a local primary school.

Project work, for which students are credited, could be one of the main ways in which an English baccalaureate-style diploma differs from A-levels and GCSEs.

Present Sir Bernard Lovell students have their "personal challenge" work recognised separately by an ASDAN (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) qualification. They still take conventional GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications.

Sir Bernard Lovell, where inspectors say the number of pupils on free school meals is about average, saw 61 per cent of its youngsters getting five or more GCSEs at C or better this year - well above average.

The Bristol scheme is one of 25 government "pathfinders", testing new approaches to 14-19 education.

The Bristol schools are also testing other changes. A new Internet site, accessible only to students, teachers and parents, allows students to draw up learning plans with their teachers. The schools and college are also working together to expand the range of vocational courses for students.

A government task force is looking at an English bac, which could replace A-levels and GCSEs by the end of the decade. The task force must produce final proposals by next summer and will be following the Bristol experiment closely.

The task force will want to find out how schools make time for cross-curricular work, whether teachers from different departments can work together and how non-academic skills are assessed and funded.

Pupils seem to like the idea of a "personal challenge". Lloyd Harris, Sir Bernard Lovell's employment and training co-ordinator, said: "From the ideas we've had back, it looks as if the students are quite impressed. It's quite exciting. We will have to see how it works out."

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