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How did the Saxons go to the toilet?

In stark contrast to our prescriptive national curriculum, an international programme for children aged 3-12 uses the power of youngsters' own curiosity to drive learning.

At Southbank international school in Hampstead, learning through enquiry and active community service is helping turn children into citizens of the world.

This is important at a school where pupils come from 39 different countries, and for children who are likely to follow in their parents'

footsteps and become leaders in the worlds of business and diplomacy.

Southbank is one of only two schools in the UK that use the International Baccalaureate Organisation's Primary Years Programme. The independent school, which has another campus in Kensington, serves children aged 3-18, most of whom are from overseas.

The PYP was developed relatively recently - within the past 10 years. It is based on a pupil profile that sets out characteristics schools wish to develop in children and is used by 95 schools around the world. Most schools in the programme are private, but state schools are involved in parts of the US.

The aim is to make children inquirers, thinkers, communicators, risk-takers, knowledgeable (on themes of global importance), principled, caring, open-minded, well-balanced and reflective.

Pupils might encounter examples of these qualities in literature or history, and learn to identify them in themselves and their peers, says Stuart Bain, assistant principal at the Hampstead campus. "We expect kids to be able to say, 'when I did this I was taking a risk', or 'I am well-balanced because I play the piano and football'."

Crucially, the way in which children learn is seen as more important than what they learn. "We want to give our kids the skills to interrogate any body of knowledge," says Mr Bain. Also there is no point in teaching a specific national curriculum to children from around the world.

"The national curriculum is not looking at the bigger picture", says Lisa Nichol, programme co-ordinator. "It compartmentalises everything."

Pupils learn a sophisticated method of enquiry and play a big role in determining what and how they are going to learn. "You find out what the children know and what they want to find out," says Ms Nichol. "Then you can shape your unit. It's a leap of faith sometimes."

Although many familiar topics are evident - materials, Anglo Saxons - children drive the detail of what is studied. For a Year 5 unit on Saxons, for example, their questions are posted on a bulletin board:

* What animals did they have?

* How did they go to the toilet?

* If they were wounded what did they do?

* Did the children go to school?

Lisa explains that the class spends time reflecting on how to answer these (using primary sources when possible) and what further questions arise. Comparisons of questions are important, looking at not just differences, but similarities, too. Children develop a feel for questions that are open-ended, and those that need only a simple factual answer.

Children use the method of enquiry from the earliest age. Five-year-olds have done a unit on the school as a community. They compared their own institution to the nearby Jack Taylor school for children with disabilities, with which the school does various projects. "We encourage them not just to look at other perspectives but to seek them out," says Ms Nichol.

The programme has six underlying themes: sharing the planet; who we are; where we are in place and time; how we express ourselves; how the world works; and how we organise ourselves. This helps explain the emphasis on action and community service.

One example of how pupils used enquiry skills and helped others is a book made by a Year 2 group that answers questions about members of the class. The idea was that someone new coming into the class (quite common in an international school) could look at it and find out about their new classmates.

One state primary, Wiveliscombe school in Taunton, Devon, is looking at PYP, and has invited IBO to give an in-service day. Headteacher Tony Halstead is keen to innovate after an excellent Ofsted report. He likes the programme's child-centred philosophy but is also tempted to develop a radical new curriculum from scratch.

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