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Homework row helps pupils study

Bad publicity gives Wiltshire school ideal resources for project. Joseph Lee reports

His school has just suffered a mauling at the hands of the media for supposedly "scrapping homework" and letting standards drift on a vague "learning journey".

Yet Patrick Hazlewood, head of St John's in Wiltshire, is unfazed. "For children and the school it couldn't have been better, in some ways," he said.

By coincidence, pupils were working on the topic of "Making the News", so instead of backing down, the Marlborough comprehensive is studying the media coverage for its innovative cross-curriculum studies. "It gives us a tremendous insight, a real life situation for them and their school," said Dr Hazlewood.

When the homework policy takes effect on February 11, Year 7 pupils will carry out a research project over the half-term holiday, which will be typical of St John's determination to move away from short, repetitive tasks.

Dr Hazlewood's claim that "homework is a dinosaur" panicked at least one parent and prompted the media hue-and-cry.

He has made sweeping statements before. When he called for volunteer staff to rewrite the Year 7 curriculum along thematic lines in 2001, he told them to "throw out the lot". In fact, the school ensures it fulfils the legal requirements of the national curriculum, although in a different order.

The coverage of the homework row also brought hundreds of emails of support from as far as Australia and Japan. Dr Hazlewood said the emails reflected an almost-universal feeling of resentment about homework. "Homework is one of the biggest sources of conflict because it is an imposition. If we can give children ownership over their learning, it sends a more positive message rather than being an additional burden."

Instead of ending homework altogether, he says the school is rebranding it.

Staff expect the work to be more demanding and time-consuming. The new homework is an extension of the school's reorganised curriculum, which has outperformed expectations after being introduced four years ago with advice from the Royal Society for the Arts.

By breaking down subject barriers and emphasising key skills, test results in science rose by 15 per cent compared to a control group.

The RSA, which has 50 schools adopting its Opening Minds curriculum, said it does not dictate what approach schools should take to homework, but fully supported the work of St John's.

St John's has not been inspected since the curriculum was rewritten, but a similar project at Eltham Green school in south-east London was praised by the Office for Standards in Education.

ST JOHN'S CURRICULUM

* It aims to promote five competencies: thinking skills, managing information, citizenship, relationships and managing situations.

* In Year 7, pupils work on six cross-curricular modules, such as "Making the News" - this begins by asking children to think about the nature of news, relative news values and how it is transmitted. It ends with a look at astronomy, and the communication of light from stars across space and time.

* Under the new homework regime, pupils will be given tasks lasting one or two weeks, involving independent research. The first will be "How will the news today affect tomorrow?" Pupils will be asked to research the implications of the news stories on February 11 this year, with written guidance on how to begin and to develop their ideas.

* A team of six teachers delivers the lessons, sometimes teaching topics from a related subject where necessary.

* Another team in school ensures the national curriculum is covered.

* As GCSEs approach, subjects are increasingly separated to help pupils make their choices and prepare for exams.

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