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St John's school and community college, Marlborough, Wiltshire Stepping outside prescribed ways of teaching, a bold experiment is making education more relevant for 21st-century students

In the science lab at St John's, an 11-16 technology college, the answer is an apparently unstoppable torrent of questions. "Sir, how do you connect light energy into sound energy?" "Sir, will it flash?" "How does it work?"

"What happens if you speak through the laser beam?"

These Year 7s are falling over themselves to understand the sound-amplifying potential of a laser beam reflected on to a light-sensitive cell, as demonstrated by teacher Bernard Taylor. Perched on the lab bench they lean forward, like five-year-olds, full of eagerness and intellectual curiosity.

St John's has always been a successful school, says its headteacher Dr Patrick Hazlewood; 68 per cent of pupils had five A*-Cs at GCSE last year.

But since he called two years ago for volunteer staff to write and teach a thematically based curriculum to one-third of Year 7s - with the rest following the national curriculum - it has been transformed.

The staff came up with six modules to span the year: making the news; forests; what makes human beings unique; going places; higher, faster, stronger; and counting the cost. Each six-week module is taught by a group of six or eight teachers.

Groups contain a range of subject specialists - someone to cover maths, science and technology for example, and a linguist; but in the one-hour lessons - often timetabled in blocks of two or three hours, and, by student demand, spilling into breaks and lunchtimes, too - one teacher may have to cover everything from Beowulf to astrophysics.

The effect, says Dr Hazlewood, is that "the teacher is there as guide and mentor rather than the fount of all knowledge. The children work in pairs or small groups. They organise their own questions they are going to answer. As they go through the week, everything makes sense, everything is related to the story."

There are times when particular techniques have to be taught - algebra, for example - and lessons are planned to accommodate that. In keeping with the law, module content is also mapped against the national curriculum. But St John's would never go back to it.

In optional Qualifications and Curriculum Authority tests last year, the alternative curriculum group scored 12 per cent higher than the control group in English, and 15 per cent higher in science. In mathematics they improved by an average of 1.4 curriculum levels. Even more striking, they were hardly ever off sick, and they accounted for only 4 per cent of detentions.

Absorbed, enthused, focused, switched on to learning, these children - even the current Year 8s, who continue to be taught thematically, though in Year 9 they will return to subject groupings - seem very different from the standard teenage class. They work voluntarily in mixed groups, and there is no boy-girl tension; in fact there seems to be no tension at all.

Partly this is because they have more stable relationships with staff, says key stage 3 principal tutor Kath Pollard. "Because we have no subject divisions, the child is the same child in every lesson. A child who is talented at art is given an opportunity to shine with three or four teachers, not just one.

"These children are used to negotiating. They know to support and help each other. You can tell an alternative curriculum classroom when you walk down the corridor. They are noisier, you can't see the teacher when you look through the door. A child might wander off and look out of the window for a while before going back to the group. He hasn't been off task. He's been reasoning. And the other children, and the teacher, respect that."

Ones to watch

Opening Minds project St John's is a pilot school for the Royal Society of Arts' experiment in focusing not on curriculum content but on five competencies: learning to learn, citizenship, relating to people, managing information, and managing situations. Other schools involved include City Technology College, Kingshurst, and Eltham Green school, Greenwich For details see:

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