Michael Duffy is struck by the boldness of an innovative modular programme.
Sandringham School is a 1,000-student Hertfordshire comprehensive of conspicuous confidence and style. The school flag flies at the gate, flanked by the pennant of the Investors in People award. The open-plan reception could belong to a major city corporation; there is no litter on the attractive, cultivated site, and no bells ring.
True, the school is at the leafy edge of affluent St Albans. But there is more to it than that. Sandringham shows a notable willingness to innovate, a reflection perhaps of the unusual experience that headteacher Steven Andrews has brought with him.
Mr Andrews, appointed in 1987 to set Sandringham up from the shotgun amalgamation of two closing schools, started his career as a secondary modern apprentice with Rolls Royce and came to headship by way of ski-centre management in Colorado, business management with the Sony Corporation in Japan, and classroom management in his first teaching post at Stantonbury Campus School. This was a watershed appointment that helped to shape his vision of what Sandringham should be.
"Right from the start," he says, remembering no doubt the two O-levels that were the sum of his own school education, "we had to recognise that it was success in learning that makes schools attractive to young people. We had to have a clear vision of what we could achieve together if we got curriculum, expectations and teaching right."
There is not much argument about the scale of that achievement. GCSE results improved from 16 per cent grades A to C in 1989 to 53 per cent in 1995, and the school is over-subscribed.
The boldness of his strategies is striking. Integrated learning programmes, what Steven Andrews carefully calls "stable tutor group" teaching in Years 7 and 8 (first and second) and significant elements of modularisation in Years 9 to 11 have more than a ring about them of the 1970s trendiness that HM Senior Chief Inspector has recently condemned. Yet last year's OFSTED inspection rated Sandringham "very successful". The inspectors said the school focuses on raising achievement and offers a teaching programme that goes well beyond the national curriculum. It provides a quality of education which is "different, challenging, and sometimes extraordinary".
That's not a bad description of the modular programme at key stage 4 which Sandringham introduced in 1994 as what curriculum manager Jan Palmer-Sayer terms "a principled response" to the rigidities of the national curriculum. The trick was to maintain the essential entitlement, the core curriculum, while building in responsiveness to individual need that module choices ought to offer. The bonus, Jan says, is that choosing modules presupposes planning on the part of students. That planning leads to better motivation and improved performance.
This is certainly how the students, who describe the system with enthusiasm, see it. There is a weekly timetable of 25 one-hour sessions - four in the morning and, to accommodate an impressive school activities programme, one in the afternoon.
For 18 of these sessions they follow the core programme, made up of English, maths and single-science (three hours each); options in each of technology, PEthe expressive arts, and humanities (two hours each); and a basic allocation in a modern foreign language, games, and PSE religious education (one hour each).
That leaves seven "lines" which look at first like ordinary option blocks. But the additional subject slots they offer contain not conventional, single courses, but five separate one-term units: this allows students to choose and re-choose subjects throughout key stage 4.
They pre-plan much of this, steering individual routes through what Jan Palmer-Sayer's termly course booklet calls "the curriculum maze". They can build in, say, a double science add-on and a full GCSE programme in a foreign language or humanity, and still have three hours free each week for a support, enrichment or enjoyment programme - one they can modify each term until the final examinations.
I spoke to students who were taking, over and above their core-plus-module GCSE commitments, modules as diverse as healthy eating, outdoor activities, desktop publishing, toy design, the American West, extra maths, and weight training.
There are difficulties, of course. Not all students can get their first choice first time - weight training, for example, is highly popular - but it's clear from Jan Palmer-Sayer's monitoring of student choice that over time most get the units they want.
"I think the staff do an amazing job in fitting the choices in," a Year 11 student said. Staff also have to rewrite large chunks of schemes of work and assessment to fit the one-term framework. The trick is to make up the modules from the coursework components of the subjects. That's not always easy: science, for example, doesn't lend itself so well to this as history. It's harder to keep track of assessment, too, because different teachers share responsibility for units that are conventionally taught together.
So was it easy to get started? Steven Andrews admits that the initial planning took his colleagues to the limits of their trust. "We drew a lot of goodwill from the bank, but in the end I pushed it through. I had to. If we had gone for just consensus we'd have lost it. It was uncomfortable for a whole day. "
A whole day? One of the striking characteristics of the school is the confidence of its teachers and their willingness to tackle change. "This school has always been on a roll," said one. There's little doubt that where modules are concerned, all the users believe that the roll is in the right direction.
This is the last in Michael Duffy's series on key stage 4 planning