New ideas boost learning

The Education Secretary should be able to sleep at night again as some schools are making radical timetable changes. Julie Henry reports

SCHOOLS are racing ahead of the Government's new innovation unit by introducing two-hour lessons and scrapping homework to do logic and philosophy projects.

Timetable overhauls for 11 to 14-year-olds have been implemented by headteachers who argue that the daily grind of unconnected, hour-long subject lessons is not working.

The experimentation is good news for Education Secretary Estelle Morris, who admitted last week that she was kept awake by the fear that schools would not take advantage of powers to innovate. But better than a sleeping pill is the news that St John's school and community college, Marlborough, Wiltshire, has made the bold claim of having "scrapped the national curriculum".

For a third of Year 7 pupils, traditional lessons were abandoned. Instead, national curriculum content was covered in six modules: making the news; forests; what makes us unique; going places; further, higher and stronger; and counting the cost.

When the children were tested, the 85 following the new timetable were 6 per cent higher in maths and 12 per cent higher in English than results for their schoolmates. There were no discipline problems in the group during the whole year.

The gains have been so great that from September all of Year 7 and Year 8 will be taught this way.

Head Patrick Hazlewood said: "We were taken by surprise at how eagerly pupils grasped this new curriculum. The gains for all abilities have surpassed our expectations by a considerable margin."

St John's is one of 10 schools taking part in a pilot run by the Royal Society for the Arts, which encourages schools to experiment with the curriculum.

At Eltham Green school, Greenwich, south-east London, only English, maths, science, PE and French are taught in individual lessons. Other subjects, such as history, geography and design and technology, are integrated into a project. Twelve-year-olds are taught in half-day blocks. Pupils build better relationships with staff and do not waste time moving to six different rooms with six different teachers throughout the day.

By September, four out of five lessons at Varndean technology college, Brighton, will be two hours long. Homework will be replaced by independent learning assignments running over a term and covering areas such as logic and philosophy.

The Department for Education and Skills' innovation unit was launched two weeks ago. It is supposed to be a "powerhouse and incubator" for new ideas. It has yet to appoint a director.

Ms Morris said: "We've set up this new innovation unit and talked about handing power to the frontline. You just sit there waiting and hoping that someone out there will make use of it.

"I'm not sure I can do that from central government."

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