To adapt learning to the needs of their pupils, schools of the future will abandon their old structures, tap into new networks and share resources - and that requires a new style of leadership
The sprawling 1970s buildings of a former secondary modern seem an unlikely home for innovative leadership and futuristic schooling. Yet behind the walls of Leigh city technology college in Dartford, Kent, classrooms and form groups are disappearing. Older pupils have their own individual timetable, progressing through GCSEs and vocational qualifications at their own pace. The standard three-term year and end-of-year exams have disappeared. And all subjects are modular. Such is the school of the future except that the future is now at Leigh.
"Schools have not changed much since the beginning of the last century when they were based on industrial society and organised along hierarchical lines," says Frank Green, the school's personable, charismatic headteacher.
But information technology and a changing society, not least the breakdown of the family unit, requires a completely new type of school where pupils take greater control of their learning and where the school is the heart of the community.
The driving force is "personalised learning" - a government buzzword which few schools have come to grips with. But pupils at Leigh are clear. "I chose this school because you are totally free to choose," says Charlotte Brandon, 13. "If you are not doing very well you can take three years to do a GCSE or you can do some of them in one year."
Personalised learning recognises that pupils learn at different speeds and in different ways and that they should be able to pick the most appropriate path for them. In practice this means completely reorganising lessons, the school day, timetables and even buildings to cater for a more flexible mix-and-match system - a formidable challenge for any head and his management team.
Because of the demands on teacher time, and the fragmenting of subject groups, one of the cornerstones of personalised learning is "vertical tutoring", which involves mixed groups of older and younger pupils in a loose mentoring system. It also replicates the notion of family support "which has largely disappeared from the lives of many modern children", says deputy head Bill Watkins.
The current 50 minutes a day of vertical tutoring is so successful it will be extended, till year groups disappear altogether, says Green.
Other benefits are already visible. "Laddish culture is being significantly challenged. Older students are not impressed by 16-year-olds being silly.
Younger children give them respect which raises their self-esteem. At age 14-15 some pupils are given control of a tutor group and they do it without too much pressure from adults," says Green.
Pupil Amy Hennessy, 13, says: "If you hear that someone is being bullied, you can go to the older pupils."
Charlotte adds: "Once you leave school you can't choose who you work with.
You have to adapt to people younger than you and older than you. Vertical tutoring is more like the real world."
Pat de Winton, head of English, finds it challenging and rewarding. "The opportunities are terrific. With vertical tutoring you teach right across the board."
Green introduced the six-term year very early on, with assessments at the end of every term. "That's six opportunities to say 'well done' to good pupils and six opportunities to catch failing pupils and put strategies in place," he says.
Key stage 3 has been compressed into just two years, allowing key stage 4 (GCSE preparation) to begin a year early in Year 10 (aged 14-15).
Kate Box, head of science, explains that GCSE pupils often peak in Year 10 and their motivation drops. "It is about the 3Ds - the damaged, disaffected and disappearing. Catch them before they disappear."
Year 8 is a dip year when some children get bored and start to go off the rails. Compacting the curriculum concentrates their minds.
A quarter of the cohort will take maths or English GCSE a year early - an astonishing achievement in Kent, which retains the 11-plus and where grammar schools syphon off the brightest pupils. Results have risen to more than 70 per cent of pupils achieving five GCSE grades A-C compared to 26 per cent when Green arrived at the school in 1999. In two years time there will no longer be normal year groups, but G1, G2, G3 GCSE groups and A1, A2, A3 - a little like college courses.
Modular courses are at the heart of the system. Timetabling is a challenge and managing such innovations requires a special team. "It is not for every teacher," Green admits."Our staff tend to be very committed and dedicated.
Anyone who comes here has to be enthusiastic about innovation."
It also requires a special kind of head. Mr Green is already updating his book, The Headteacher in the 21st Century, using his experiences at Leigh.
Only five years old, it is already out of date, he laughs. "The new school requires a new, more flexible, leadership. Leadership must impact beyond your own organisation," he says.
Brian Caldwell, a Specialist Schools Trust guru on new management in schools, says leaders of such schools are a far cry from the old-style head. "The success of a school depends on synergy - the capacity to share knowledge, address problems and pool resources," he says.
Through links, Leigh is "providing support to other schools that are coasting", Green says. "This will better prepare pupils to go out into the community and be part of it."
But what remains unsaid is that by linking up with the community to benefit pupils, Green is more than just a school head. He is a community leader.
'The Headteacher in the 21st Century, Being a Successful School Leader' by Frank Green is published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.'The New Enterprise Logic of Schools' by Brian J Caldwell was published this year by the Specialist Schools Trust