They think it's cool not to work," says Andy Scho-field reflecting on his experience of teaching Year 9 in schools from Sheffield to Sussex. "They decide their options and then spend so much time waiting to start GCSE that they just give up. It is often the most difficult year in a school, but it's an interesting year and I wanted to try to do something for them."
Three years ago, when he was head of geography and humanities at Falmer School, East Sussex, an extra period a week became available for Year 9 and the humanities faculty snapped it up.
"We toyed with a number of ideas," Andy Schofield says,"simulations, role-play, drama and history, workshops."
Eventually it was decided, with the support of the headteacher, John Williams, that for the extra period a group of the more able students would follow the same geography GCSE syllabus with Scho-field as Years 10 and 11. The rest of the year group would do project work different from the humanities course which all the students were following in other periods.
"It was considered extremely quirky and we proceeded very, very cautiously, " Schofield says. All the more cautiously, perhaps, because although results have steadily improved over the past five years, particularly in humanities subjects, Falmer School has the lowest academic intake of any of the 34 comprehensive schools in East Sussex. Familiar euphemisms describe many pupils as "disadvantaged" and the nearby housing estate where they live as having a "mixed reputations".
Schofield has never been afraid of being considered quirky or of expressing controversial opinions. As chair of the Geographical Association's Secondary Section Committee from 1988 to 1992 he did not feel duty-bound to support all the association's views. He says: "The national curriculum really inflamed me. I was very frustrated and nobody was going into print saying what a disaster it was." He shadowed the progress of working party reports and consultations with a series of critical articles in The TES.
"In the geographical community," he adds "I think I'm considered a bit of a loose cannon, a bit of a maverick."
He passionately believes it is a teacher's duty to unlock the potential in every pupil, and the school should provide the framework in which this can be achieved.
In today's social and economic climate he sees this as particularly relevant to pupils from so-called disadvantaged and often unstable backgrounds. Of the Year 9 geography experience he says: "It was all about them learning self-discipline, self-organisation and taking responsibility for themselves and for their own learning."
Fifteen of the more able students were selected for the geography course. They were merely told that at the end of the year their work might be good enough for a GCSE, but in any case they would lose nothing, and they would be able to use the work as part of their course in Years 10 and 11. Participation was entirely voluntary - one or two students dropped out when they heard how heavy the workload would be. All the parents were contacted and asked to support their children, because at least two or three hours a week would have to be spent working at home.
Five pieces of enquiry-based coursework involving fieldwork had to be submitted. Schofield, explains: "With only an hour a week the teaching had to be very intensive, we couldn't afford to waste five minutes. They had to be prepared very carefully. I wrote study guides to go with each piece of work, but I couldn't stand over them while they did it, they just had to go away and get on with it and stick to a deadline."
The difference between the work at the beginning and end of the year was, he says, "absolutely incredible". Of the 15 who entered two years early for GCSE geography, 13 achieved a C or higher grade.
Two groups were entered the following year. From 30 entries 10 achieved an A pass. Last year 25 students followed the course, again with excellent results, earning the accolade "outstandingly good" from the Office for Standards in Education.
Andy Schofield is now curriculum manager at Falmer School, which is separated only by two playing fields from the University of Sussex where he gained his degree. The Falmer tradition of Year 9 GCSE will be maintained this year led by Richard Bedford, head of humanities. Two groups are involved; one is being prepared to take the humanities GCSE in Year 9, the other to work on GCSE course work in preparation for Years 10 and 11.