Boys like Ritesh Parmar are the bane of school life. They can't or won't concentrate and are easily bored; they're forever messing about, seeking distraction, working their teachers into a fever of frustration. When the bell goes it's a relief to see the back of them. At Leasowes community college, Halesowen, however, they're getting rid of bells. Some lessons do not come to an end. In fact they go on for a whole week. Stuck with Ritesh for a whole week? God help us.
Except that teachers in this West Midlands school have found that for boys like him a "fast track" structure, whereby week-long blocks of time are mapped out for tackling a single piece of coursework or project from beginning to end, and a GCSE is completed within a year, is what grabs their interest. They go for the challenge. The answer is not to see them off with a sigh of relief after an hour, knowing they'll be sabotaging somebody else's lesson, but to keep them on task.
Ritesh Parmar is now in Year 11, aged 16, with two GCSEs in applied business studies under his belt and a new sense of ambition driving him forward. He is, by his own admission, a different person. When Dan Taylor, head of business at Leasowes, took him on in Year 10, Ritesh was predicted to come out with two Fs in this vocational GCSE. In reality, he achieved two Cs and is now set on going to college to take a Btec in business with the intention of studying business at university. The "fast track", says Ritesh, "turned me upside down. If it wasn't for that I would be the same old person; going nowhere."
During his week-long lesson comparing private with public limited companies, Ritesh was expected to begin the day at 8.30, dress in a business suit and tackle what felt like a real task. His group went to Cadbury World and heard lectures on the company. Cadbury's recruiters and people from other companies came in to talk to students. It felt like the real thing. And, rather than playing up, Ritesh got stuck in. He liked "doing business", the sense of urgency. It appealed to his extrovert nature and he liked the responsibility of having to work hard enough to get a GCSE a year early. "I really got into it," he says. "It felt like the real world and made me realise that the more you put in, the more you get out, that life isn't easy, that nothing is going to be handed to you on a plate."
Dan Taylor has found that students get so absorbed by their work that they have to be kicked out of school at 6pm. That's something else Ritesh appreciated: "It was good to have the teacher with you there all the time, even after school. In the end I wasn't far off getting Bs."
Real tasks based on the school's local community; sustained, deep learning; the chance to fail, to take a breather, but to keep going until there is a real outcome. For years, Leasowes has been bell-free on a Friday. For the past 14 years, pupils have been given a break from clockwork routine, and have thrived on having the time to get stuck into something. Five and a half hours spent just on PE or poetry, composing music, creating websites or analysing the structure of slapstick in drama. Pupils can make enormous strides during the course of the day.
John Howell, the school's longstanding head, was prompted to think about the way time is organised in school and the impact this has on pupils'
motivation. He says: "Who says it takes two years to study for a GCSE, or that lessons should be an hour long? As subjects have demanded more and more status, they have been filled with more and more stuff, and students are required to get through more and more in short blocks of time, directed by a teacher, like a string of elephants. Except that, unless you are the elephant at the front, all you see is the grey behind of another elephant.
In this way children become passive learners in a grey world, and the more passive they are, the less they achieve. I prefer the learning model of the spider's web, where there is room to move from node to node with great flexibility."
The drive for standards, says Mr Howell, leads schools into blind alleys, pursuing the holy grail of a few more percentage points on GCSE passes by doing more of the same. He has felt increasingly that "the drill model"
leaves many children cold.
The week-long lessons began a year ago in art, business studies and ICT and this year have extended to music. The school intends to widen provision still further. Mr Howell says the impact was almost wholly positive in terms of achievement, relationships, attitudes, behaviour, and standards.
The first lot of week-long lessons are mapped out either side of the October half term, with another later in the year, closer to exams. "We find that getting a coursework under their belt early on breeds a feeling of success in students so that they buy into the system from the beginning."
But week-long lessons also represented a fundamental philosophical shift about the nature of learning: they allowed time to build in "real experiences" in terms of visits out of school, with local people, business leaders, artists, musicians, coming into school to work with students; they allowed time for students to fail and overcome failure; they enabled a curriculum that was language-rich, which allowed time for seeing, feeling, touching; and pupils were better able to build up relationships with peers and teachers, to begin to direct their own learning and buy into achievement.
O n a practical level, pupils with difficulties such as hyperactivity can take a break, walk around, leave the class, have a breather and come back without too much disruption. There is greater flexibility to book people from the community to work with pupils, and children with troublesome home lives have the space to re-orient themselves to school work.
Brian Lammas, Leasowes' head of arts for the last seven years says he was attracted to the school because it was led by a visionary thinker and embraced innovation. A man with a graphics and technology background, he had become increasingly concerned by the under-achievement of boys and the way art was being taught. He put it down to the way time was managed. He says: "Taking students off timetable for the whole week meant that we could build and maintain momentum. We got an artist-in-residence, we went out to visit galleries and the artist came with us; we spread out and boarded out studio spaces for every student and we started each morning with a quickfire activity as a prelude to a very intensive day which stretched between 8.30 in the morning until 8.00 at night. The students became highly motivated.
"I had one girl, Charlie, who always came in late for school because of problems at home, and often she would end up in detention as a start off, and things would go from bad to worse from then on. But a week-long session meant she could come in, I could talk her through difficulties and she could then settle down and get on with it. She said it had been the best week of her school life. Prior to that she had been failing."
Frustrated by what he thinks is an archaic art syllabus, Mr Lammas has also created a course called Mediaonics, a fusion of art and music technology, which has become the most popular arts option, despite being a non-examination subject. It combines 3D animation, video, film and installation projects linked to the requirements of industry.
Claire Behan, head of PE, says longer lessons help to build better relationships between staff and pupils. She also says fast track students achieve more As and Bs than students who take GCSEs in year 11.
There have been many positive spin-offs. Fast-track students who do well are able to pursue an AS in Year 11, or have more time to catch up with coursework in other subjects and for revision, or to take up new subjects.
Teachers say the system provides invaluable professional development; because not all staff are involved every Friday, it means they are free for about 12 days a year to develop their own resources.
John Howell says the school is looking at the needs of future learners.
"The teacher's role will not be to stand at the front of the class and direct, but to build relationships with pupils, to know pupils and to build contexts and experiences that expand their learning. By creating bigger blocks of time we are trying to move this on, make things happen."
THINK OF THE FUTURE
young people will enjoy and value a curriculum that enables them to enjoy and value themselves Eileen Marchant, British Association of Advisers and Lectureres in Physical Education Children and young people do not grow-up in six key stages (foundation stage, key stages 1-4 and post-16) whereby they must suddenly move from one block to another. As individuals they should be allowed to move through education at a pace that is linked to their needs and their previous experience.
Paul Brennan, A4
The most important constituent of the 4-16 curriculum is no longer the 3 Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) but must now be taken as the 3 Cys : ie oracy, literacy and numeracy. Without competence in oracy, literacy and numeracy, individuals are denied the capacity to undertake meaningful communication with fellow human beings, to indulge in either social or professional interaction or to function successfully as citizen, social member of a community or family, employer or employee.
Mike Cresswell, AQA
Many of the professional roles that will be undertaken by today's children are yet to be defined in modern society, so it is essential that young people are prepared to think creatively and cope with the unknown. Tansy Jones, Arts Council In the same way that learners need ownership of their learning, teachers need to feel ownership of what they are teaching and have opportunities to share their enthusiasm for learning about things they are interested in with young people.
Dr Derek Bell, The Association for Science Education