By pioneering new ways of learning, the University of the First Age aims to revolutionise classroom practice - and make teaching fresh and exciting again. Stephanie Northen reports
Five years ago, someone whispered to a Norfolk teacher that work could be different. Learning could be fun, every child could succeed and there was more to education than the national curriculum. All he had to do was join the University of the First Age.
Bob Rogers, deputy head at the Park high school, King's Lynn, is now a fellow of the UFA. For him, it has been inspirational, just as it was for the man who set up the organisation, Professor Tim Brighouse, that most inspirational of leaders.
Back in 1994, Mr Brighouse, then chief education officer in Birmingham, pointed out that children spent just 15 per cent of their waking hours in school. He wanted to influence the remaining 85 per cent - radically. Two years later, he launched the UFA as a "study support" organisation. Behind this dry term lurks a determination to be innovative, even subversive.
Cutting-edge research is applied and developed in out-of-hours sessions, breakfast clubs, "super learning" days, Easter schools and week-long summer challenges.
The UFA focuses on how the brain works and how learners learn. Its message is spread around the UK by 700 fellows itching to be experimental and creative. Mainly teachers, they are experts on concepts such as thinking skills, accelerated learning, mind-mapping, peer mentoring and multiple intelligences, among many others. Using these to unlock reluctant learners'
minds, many of them have rediscovered the reasons they joined the profession in the first place. They are enjoying their work again.
The three years Bob Rogers, 53, has spent as a fellow have been a liberation. "You are working out of hours and are not tied down by the curriculum," he says. "No one is measuring it and saying what have you learned is good for your Sats - though, of course, the children do learn a lot. You can therefore teach, to some extent, what you like and how you like. That is an attractive proposition."
Elaine Grimshaw agrees. Head of St Mary and St Joseph's primary in Blackburn, Lancashire, she has encouraged all her staff to go on UFA training. Now six of the 11 have undertaken the 10 half-day training sessions needed to become fellows, and the other five are halfway there.
She delights in their rediscovered joy for their work, and says everyone seems so happy in school. "The UFA gave us the confidence to put creativity back into the classroom and the child back into the centre of planning. It has been a great project for galvanising people. It has given us a common purpose, generated a great team spirit."
Ms Grimshaw is in pursuit of memorable learning experiences. Older teachers, she says, who trained in the 1970s to think in terms of project work, cross-curricular links and making lessons exciting, have embraced the UFA like an old friend.
Six years ago, St Mary and St Joseph's, where almost 50 per cent of the 200 pupils are on free school meals, was in special measures. Now it is a beacon school. Staff are training teachers from elsewhere in UFA techniques and Ms Grimshaw wants to train her support staff, too. As far as she is concerned, the UFA "will be our school improvement plan for years to come".
Such enthusiasm is the lifeblood of the UFA. Stephen Rogers, who takes over as national director this month, says it inspires teachers to look at learning in fresh ways. "When you're stuck in the grind of the national curriculum and you feel you are not getting far, the UFA is a case of 'yes, that's what I came into teaching for - to focus on learning and potential'."
Mr Rogers describes the UFA as an action-based research network. It organises conferences so teachers can share ideas and discoveries. Fellows who attend talk of the pleasure of meeting like-minded people. "They are teachers who are interested and engaged in their job, not cynical or switched off," says Mr Rogers. "They came into teaching to teach, and the UFA revitalises and re-energises them."
It can also revitalise their careers. A 1999 study in Birmingham showed that half of the city's UFA fellows won promotion after getting involved in the organisation. Mr Rogers expects to see this success repeated in the results of a national survey which are now being analysed.
But it is not just experienced teachers worn down by years of curriculum prescription who enjoy the UFA. Five years ago, Brian Thomas started work as a newly qualified teacher at Calthorpe, a Birmingham school for pupils aged two to 19 with severe learning difficulties. It is now a joint specialist sports college, well used to trying out innovative teaching approaches, and 27-year-old Mr Thomas is a UFA fellow.
"It's been fantastic," he says. "The stuff I have learned has been so much more interesting and relevant than anything else. It's given me confidence and energy."
In exploring how their pupils learn best, UFA fellows also find out about how their own minds work. This is two sides of the same coin, says Bob Rogers.
"Teaching teachers how they learn has implications for the way they work.
If you suddenly realise what your learning style is, you realise you probably teach that way. You need to recognise that there are kids in your classroom who want to do things differently."
And now they can, thanks to the UFA. "It's good stuff and challenging. It keeps you on your toes as a teacher," says Mr Rogers. "I could enthuse about it forever."
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
The University of the First Age is involved in 36 partnerships in the UK.
Most are with local education authorities, but some are with education action zones or, occasionally, individual schools. Only teachers working in these partnership areas can become fellows, and they should contact their local partnership manager (details on website). The UFA is, however, an expanding organisation and invitations to set up new partnerships are being sent out this month.
Partnerships vary in their emphasis. Some are particularly good at involving support staff, parents, youth service employees or local library services.
To become a fellow requires 10 half-days' training over two years. Teachers can do less, which the UFA says is useful professional development, but does not bring them the benefits of being part of a cohesive and co-operative network. Funding for the training sometimes comes from the local education authority, sometimes from the school, or sometimes both.
The teacher pays nothing.
Fellows are paid - though not a great deal - for their work as the UFA does not believe they should do something for nothing.
For more information or a copy of the UFA's good practice guide, tel: 0121 202 2347.www.ufa.org.uk