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Old boys on the trail of a brave new world

Roger Popeis principal of Kingsbridge community college in Devon

It is my annual penance, the price I have to pay for enjoying the rest of my job so much. On a cold Saturday evening, I leave the family glued to The X Factor and set off to be guest of honour at the Kingsbridge Old Boys'

grammar school annual general meeting. Most of those present were at the school even before G-day, the 1949 watershed when girls were admitted for the first time. I park between two zimmer frames and drag myself in.

I enjoy every minute, and not just because it's now the only social occasion in the year at which I'm youngest. This is like peering into a time capsule, a chance to reflect on where our modern comprehensive has come from, and where it is going. This wartime generation exudes the values that we have to fight for today: respect for others, self-respect, politeness, kindness and resilience. Words that we now find awkward sit easily with them: duty and service, pride and loyalty.

Their world seems nostalgically simple to the modern eye. Masters taught and pupils copied. There was agreement about what you learned in order to call yourself educated, and the values and culture that all shared.

Transgressions were punished. I still have the old school "beating book".

My favourite entry is when Lee Brazier was given "six on seat for repeated disturbances in class culminating in cracking nuts under desk leg".

It seems a different world, yet in other ways we are not far away. We still use the same classrooms built in 1929. They are still set out with rows of 30, teacher at the front. Subjects on the timetable are still recognisable: physics and French, even if media studies has replaced Latin. But we are incresingly leaving that world, and we are on the brink of massive change.

The Department for Education and Skills' cauldron is bubbling with a heady mix of the e-learning strategy, 14-19 diplomas and Building Schools for the Future, all ready to serve up a dish called personalised learning. There are two major obstacles to achieving that transformation: the need to timetable classes between set hours of the day, and the control that the five A*-C grade measure exerts on the curriculum. So sweep away league tables, national pay and conditions for teachers and compulsory student attendance for 360 school sessions a year. Flexible teacher contracts, similar to those in further education, will accelerate the Extended Schools programme. Let schools negotiate individual programmes of learning with students that may include evening classes, individual online learning and work placements.

One of the Old Boys said how much he admired modern technology lessons (in his day, they only had toothless saws and blunt chisels to work with). We have the tools and expertise to make the breakthrough into the 21st-century schooling that our students need, and which is wholly different from the models of the past. All we need now is the courage.

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