Walk into School 21 first thing in the morning and you might struggle to identify what's taking place as an assembly. Students might be standing on chairs declaiming loudly or sitting in circles talking among themselves.
The East London school for four- to 18-year-olds has a vision of 21st-century education that is light on the usual technological trappings. Instead, staff want pupils to use the oldest communication tool there is: their voices.
The emphasis on children's speaking skills, or "oracy", and the desire to put it on a par with literacy prevents teachers from holding forth for long periods of time, even in assemblies.
Instead, through drama and role play, a group of five teachers from different disciplines are working together to help children explore how to prepare for exams. There's also a heavy dose of fashionable psychology such as mindfulness (techniques inspired by meditation to reduce anxiety and stress).
That's partly because children find few things more stressful than exams, but also because School 21 sees well-being as essential in helping its students, many of whom are from challenging backgrounds, to succeed.
As Daniel Shindler (pictured, below), the drama teacher leading the assembly, tells TES: "Children won't speak unless they're well, and there are many things that can get in the way. The challenge [of] speaking is about well-being as much as anything else."
Leap of faith
School 21 was founded by its headteacher, Peter Hyman, a former adviser to Tony Blair turned history teacher, along with teacher Oli de Botton and education consultant Ed Fidoe. It opened three years ago and, like many free schools, it has had to overcome a number of challenges.
"We had to have parents putting their child's name down in October without being approved as a school, so that was a huge leap of faith," Mr Hyman says. "We had no school site, we had not been approved, we had no teachers, no curriculum. We just had to go around and say, `There's going to be this exciting new school.' "
What the co-founders did have was an idea: six characteristics that educational research had led them to believe were essential for success in the 21st century (see panel, right). "We started with a blank sheet of paper," Mr Hyman says. And top of the list was eloquence.
"Teaching speaking and oracy is the number one thing that employers say, and it's largely absent from schools," Mr Hyman says. "It's absent because there is very little of it in the curriculum, and there's very little in our assessment regime, so it's not seen as being of high importance.
"But here we're genuinely trying to lift speaking to the same level as reading or writing. We know in inner-city schools it's also one of the biggest barriers to children getting on: their lack of articulacy."
`I can do it'
Every pupil at School 21 takes part in an annual speaking event called Ignite - inspired by Mr Hyman's desire for each child to give a TED talk, which was eventually deemed too ambitious. For some, the event is a shock to the system. "I'm someone who really doesn't like public speaking at all. Like, I really hate it. So getting told that I was going to have to do that was my worst nightmare," says Marcella, a Year 9 student. "But now I can do it."
In the classroom, the emphasis on oracy has forced a rethink of how children are questioned. "Statistically, a child is supposed to be speaking for four seconds a lesson, if that," says Mr Hyman (pictured, below right). "Because the teacher does most of the talking, the child may be asked one question." Influenced by Russian approaches, School 21 tries to question fewer students more deeply.
Much of their learning takes place during projects that aim to encourage pupils to create "beautiful work" and involve staff in cross-curricular collaborations. In the primary years, this means themed topics that take over classrooms. They are elaborately decorated as a Stone Age cave, polar habitat or whatever else the children are immersed in.
In the secondary years, students have recreated a First World War trench in a classroom, guided external visitors around an exhibition and even published their own writing anthologies.
The cross-curricular approach has unusual consequences: for example, history teacher Joe Pardoe is taking piano lessons. "I'm trying to learn the music and they're seeing me be rubbish in order to slowly get better," he says.
Central to all projects is the idea of redrafting work. Even four-year-olds don't escape this exercise in building grit, professionalism and craftsmanship. The Reception classroom's walls display pupils' paintings of themselves as Tudor royalty, but as three drafts. The pictures start as clumsy outlines in often arbitrary colours, gradually emerging as simple but distinct and characterful portraits.
Students are motivated to make improvements through critiques with outside experts and audiences. "I think it makes you feel like you're working for a purpose," says Year 9 student Elias.
Making a difference
So far, the school's approach seems to be borne out by its results, although it doesn't yet have its first GCSE cohort. Last year, Ofsted said students had made rapid progress from below-average starting points in Years 7 and 8. The inspectorate added that Reception and Year 1 pupils talked "fluently and expressively" about their learning.
However, staff regard the exam system as a failure, so in their eyes results only count for so much. "We've got a totally broken and absurd system that doesn't measure what anyone wants out of the schools system," Mr Hyman says. "It's not what the schools want to be measured on, it's not what employers want them to be measured on."
Teacher assessments moderated in a similar way to music exams would better reflect the deeper learning students should be experiencing, Mr Hyman adds. But what does success mean to him?
"I think our students will go into the world not passively working in routine jobs, or even in careers that are not fulfilling. I think they will go out there and make a difference," he says. "They will change the world. Not all of them, but some of them will."
Six attributes for 21st-century success
The School 21 philosophy emphasises six main characteristics:
Eloquence: "I speak fluently and with confidence."
Spark: "I ask: `What if I.?' "
Professionalism: "I am ready to learn."
Grit: "I always give 100 per cent."
Craftsmanship: "I craft beautiful work."
Expertise: "Practice makes perfect."