A full day's work but just two classes

7th November 2008 at 00:00
New RSA Academy to provide centre of excellence for the increasingly popular 'opening minds' curriculum

A new academy that was officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh this week is to become a centre of excellence for teachers who want to adopt an innovative curriculum that replaces subjects with skills.

The academy, in Tipton, West Midlands, is being sponsored by the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA), which has developed a curriculum that focuses on "competencies" including teamwork, thinking skills and citizenship.

The so-called "opening minds" approach has grown in popularity over the past two years and is now used in some form in more than 200 schools in England, including South Leeds High, Bowring Community Sports College in Huyton, Merseyside, and Chafford Hundred Campus School in Essex.

Most schools use the curriculum in part of their timetable to develop pupils' skills, rather than adopting it wholesale. But the RSA Academy has been designed to be a beacon of how the philosophy can work across the board.

Pupils aged 11 to 14 have just two three-hour lessons a day, giving them time to work on topics instead of having a series of separate subject lessons.

After the current Year 10 and 11 pupils finish school, pupils of all ages will follow the approach.

Lesley James, head of education at the RSA, says traditional subject content is still covered, but in a way that is more engaging.

"Pupils might fall slightly behind in terms of subject knowledge during Year 7, but by the end of Year 8 they are ahead because they have become better learners," she said.

An RSA survey found that 78 per cent of schools using its approach have had their curriculum graded as good or outstanding by Ofsted.

Ms James admits there was some resistance from teachers to the opening minds curriculum when they found out that their approach to teaching would have to be radically overhauled to cope with such long lessons. But staff received training over the year before the academy opened in September.

Since the start of term, pupil behaviour and attendance have improved, and teachers and pupils have been positive about the changes, said Ms James.

The redesign of the curriculum around skills has been criticised by traditionalists who favour subject-specific teaching.

But the RSA is planning to use the academy to train more teachers in using its alternative curriculum. Schools interested in adopting the approach will be able to send teachers to the academy to see it in action and to help improve the way it is put into practice.

"We wanted to produce a framework for schools to make their own," said Ms James. "But that means there's a tremendous variety in what's done. It would be impossible for me to say that what is happening in all schools is how I would want it."

There is also interest in the new approach from other nations, with 32 schools in eight countries, including England, signed up to be mentor schools in the use of the opening minds curriculum.

In England, there are no plans to expand the number of RSA academies beyond the one in Tipton. A new Pounds 30 million building for the school is due to open in 2010 and there are long-term ambitions for it to become an all-through school for primary and secondary pupils.

The area served by the school is a focus for social and economic regeneration, with money being made available for schools through the Black Country Challenge.

From the academy's predecessor school, only 40 per cent of pupils went on to further or higher education, with 70 per cent of those failing to complete their studies, Ms James said.

Matthew Taylor, RSA chief executive and former head of the Downing Street policy unit under Tony Blair, said: "The decision to sponsor an academy was based on the strongest of educational grounds. We have seen the impact that opening minds can have at key stage 3.

"The academy gives us the opportunity to apply the principles across the school. We believe we need to radically rethink schooling for the 21st century."

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