One-room schoolhouse keys into the future

The school of the future will be designed by business consultants for whom money is no object and will seem as novel as a modern hospital might look to a 19th-century surgeon.

There will be no walls between the classrooms, or desks aligned in rows, or class periods, or textbooks. Instead there will be computer work stations clustered into pods called global commons, communication islands, biotechnology huts and entrepreneurship zones scattered around a creative learning plaza. Teachers will be called facilitators. Students will be known as learners.

This is the vision of the international financial consulting firm Arthur Andersen, which already has opened such a school in the United States and hopes soon to export similar ideas to the UK. Michael Barber, head of the Department for Education and Employment standards and effectiveness unit, has already shown interest.

"The traditional education system is obsolete," says Arthur Anderson, which has made education the primary focus of its civic patronage. "The existing education system is a monument to its own time and place (of a century ago), but a woeful anachronism in ours." The solution, says the company, is to move from the industrial age to the information age of education.

"In our business practice, we have become increasingly aware of the growing gulf between schools and business, and if you fancy yourself a leader in the business community you can't stand by and not respond to that," said Mort Egol, director of the company's school of the future project and head of its worldwide government and education services industry programme.

"Businesses have the kinds of skills to adapt to change, to do development work, to manage technology," Mr Egol said. "These are skills that schools don't have, and there's a systemic bias against fundamental change. Where's the incentive? The risk reward for innovation is not good in the public sector, so businesses have to become more involved."

Arthur Andersen has put cash behind its convictions, allocating $1.5 million (almost Pounds 1m) to its first experimental school in co-operation with the school district of Alameda, near San Francisco, California.

A modern version of the one-room schoolhouse, the Arthur Andersen community learning center is open plan with "pods" of computer workstations, editing booths, a multimedia theatre, a wind tunnel and animation equipment for 96 7th to 10th graders (about 12 to 16-year-olds) and their five "facilitators". It looks more like the inside of a high-tech office building than a school.

Different ages mix and there are no formal class periods. Teamwork is encouraged and rewarded, and performance is measured through reports the students are required to present before their classmates and their parents. They also are required to take standardised state tests each year.

Some children are designing, building and marketing a phantom prototype electric car, while others are growing tomatoes and using them to measure air quality. Textbooks are consulted only for references, usually for formulas or facts.

The school was opened last year and already the results have been impressive, says Dennis Chaconas, the school district superintendent. He says tests show the students are doing twice as well as their counterparts in the traditional high school next door.

The school took seven years to plan and has won Arthur Andersen the company of the year award from the US National Alliance of Business. And that, says Mr Egol, should encourage other American businesses to help design and underwrite similar new organising principles for education.

"I'm sure that, as a result of this site, there will be others who will want to do similar things," he said.

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