Birth of an alternative

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
When's a school not a school? When it's Notschool. Stephen Heppell looks at the successes that this revolutionary approach to learning has had

There is much we don't yet know about the shape and nature of children's education, but to really explore our understanding of the real potential of learning we need projects that exist slightly "outside the box" and have a long enough life to allow longitudinal research. Over the last few years one of the DfES' largest education research projects, based at Ultralab with a number of LEA partners, has been exploring a new model for teaching and learning for the many children that school simply didn't fit.

Many of these children were themselves "outside the box" and had become part of a small army of long-term excluded. was first reported as an embryonic project in The TES some four years ago and now, with over 1,000 children having graduated from the project and a further 500 to be added this year, the project has produced a second major external evaluation in time for BETT 2004. The project also announces a global roll out at BETT; there is much to learn from it. It works.

The initial idea was simple: young people who are out of school in the long term and retain no links with their past school are given a home computer and broadband connection linking them to a network of experts who support their learning and to a community of learners in similar circumstances who support each other too. However, research has made clear that the execution of that simple idea is quite astonishingly complex. For example: the gender balance matters - drop girls below 40 per cent of the community and the social balance wobbles badly; the vocabulary is crucial with the young learners known as "researchers" and with none of the cues and clues of school used at all (there are no "teachers", "lessons" or "timetables", although the many inspired adults working in Notschool are, very largely, teachers themselves); many of the experts are qualified teachers; the computers are desktops (iMacs and eMacs) not portables because of the tangible permanency that they give to the learning experience in a virtual world amongst often difficult social circumstances; the split with school needs to be 100 per cent; the minutiae of the researcher inductions are orchestrated in detail down to the dress code (no suits). And there are many more details that make Notschool work.

As the project rolls out to LEAs, Jean Johnson (the project's global leader) and Jonny Dyer (the UK director with their team at Ultralab, impose a quite Stalinist adherance to these many precise details; history has shown that local variations fail, as the latest evaluation makes clear.

Notschool succeeds in a way that transcends everyone's expectations: 98 per cent of "researchers" achieve some formal external accreditation within three months of starting on the project, 50 per cent and more attain five GCSE A-C equivalents, many graduate on into FE, some into HE and others into employment. It certainly acts to provide a dramatic, highly cost-effective, life change for the many young people who are referred to the project.

So what might schools in general learn from something approaching pound;10 million of solid research into what is quite literally not school? First, Notschool's researchers come to their learning from a starting point that this is what they enjoy most, often in great depth, and are led from there to a richer curriculum. This approach is proven to be effective and to produce progression.

Second, Notschool has harnessed a small army of experts online - all properly screened - to support learning and they range from a children's book illustrator to staff at the Science Museum, while the subjects in Notschool's eclectic curriculum range from Chinese and electronics to Irish dance and saxophone performance. Through the computer communication at the heart of Notschool's community, these experts convey a passion about their specialisms to the young researchers, while a range of tools allow the project to map and monitor progress.

This isn't a learning environment where content is king, although the experts do produce starting points like how to assemble your saxophone, or "kits" that simulate electical components. The power of notschool lies in the learning community and the way that researchers are keen to pass on their knowledge, experience and outputs to others. For all its virtual remoteness, Notschoool is unashamedly constructivist and social. Learning is through doing. There is a freedom in the Notschool curriculum that is delightful to teach within. Many of the online experts have qualified as teachers and report a renewed pleasure in teaching: Third, ICT levels are rapidly progressed and most Notschool graduates demonstrate very high levels of ICT capability indeed. Their eMacs are complemented by powerful professional software like Cinema 4D or Final Cut Pro when appropriate. Sound and image are important parts of the community's. A clear lesson from Notschool is the way that the researchers immerse themselves in work once they get started, and this is particularly true of their work with and through digital media; Notschool is 247 - running without breaks for weekends, sleep or holidays. The result is a very high level of engagement and progress.

Fourth, concentrated blocks of learning time really do produce results. The work produced in a solid block of time is significantly in excess of the work produced when that same time is broken up and there are clear implications here for timetabling. Where researchers are really engaged their outputs substantially transcend what would be normal for under 16s: one researcher has recently completed an 80,000-word novel, a dozen others have started on degree-level work, another found a lucrative market for his art coursework.

Assessment has been a big focus for Jean's Notschool team. With children working across multiple media and at unexpected velocities, simple rules and timings for coursework completion are constantly challenged. One researcher found his accreditation to be a problem because he was completing coursework too rapidly for the exam board and had to shop around for a board that didn't try to cap the speed at which he worked.

For others the media-rich possiblities of the "wired" environment bring a mass of challenges for external assessors, but do offer evidence of clear progression and, of course, because the whole learning environment is online building portfolios of progress or collecting learning outcomes is very straightforward. ICT doesn't just make a difference to Notschool without it the project couldn't exist at all.

Best of all, Notschool is affordable and is competitively cheaper than most alternative provision. Measured against the lifetime social costs of failure of course it is astonishing value, but for the Notschool team the real pleasure, every day, lies in seeing startling progress in the most unlikely of circumstances. Notschool is complex and tough, but it reminds us all just how satisfying teaching can be. Most exciting of all, the project is now reaching out in two directions. First to a global growth as the research begins to explore the learning potential of mixing cultures, time zones and contexts and second upward into higher education as Ultralab take the learning gains of Notschool forward into a radical degree programme that offers the same inclusion agenda and the same delightful environment that Notschool has pioneered. It's not surprising to find Notschool graduates among the first cohort of the Ultraversity degree.

Professor Stephen Heppell is director of Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab

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