Breaking the mould

10th February 2012 at 00:00
With its learning 'plazas', teachers as 'facilitators' and lack of traditional classrooms, Cornwallis Academy in Kent, pictured, is the latest experiment in bringing teaching into the 21st century. Do such innovations signal the beginning of the end for the traditional 30-pupil class?, asks William Stewart

With their smooth, blocky exteriors and tasteful green and grey cladding, the Cornwallis and New Line Learning academies do not look like schools.

These twin palaces of education, a few minutes' drive apart on the outskirts of Maidstone, would fit in perfectly on a high-tech business campus. Walk through their main entrances and you are greeted by cavernous atria like mini Tate Modern turbine halls, with modern office receptions on one side and buzzy open-plan cafeterias on the other.

They feel like state-of-the-art airport terminal buildings or software company HQs. Only slight scuffs betray their real role as English secondary schools.

The effect is entirely intentional. Chris Gerry, the former headteacher and brains behind the academies, does not believe that the traditional physical and pedagogical models of education do pupils any favours.

He is convinced that if they are to succeed in the real world, they need to learn how to function effectively in it - while they are still at school.

"You have to provide environments in tune with the world that people understand," says Gerry, now executive principal of the Future Schools Trust, which runs the academies. "Schools are very bizarre places - with school furniture, design, canteen spaces you never see any place else. So the idea was, 'How could you make a space that is a destination environment?'

"You don't want a design that is like some institution. You want people to want to be here."

Egg-box world

These are schools designed not to be schools, with teachers who don't teach - well, not all the time and not always in a traditional sense - and classrooms that aren't classrooms but learning "plazas" that can hold 120 pupils at a time.

Gerry is not alone. John Baumber, who has worked as a head in England and Sweden, also believes that the traditional 30-pupils-per-class model is outdated.

"I don't think in this electronic age they learn that way," he argues. "If we stick to the industrial model of one teacher to one class with a teacher at the front and the students receiving, you don't start to talk to youngsters and understand what they know and what they don't know."

Today, he is heading the UK operation of Swedish free-schools chain Kunskapsskolan as it attempts to import its radical approach to three academies in England. The model eschews the familiar but rigid classroom model in favour of a flexible philosophy that allows pupils to set their own "learning goals" and requires the teachers to act as "facilitators".

Perhaps these are the kind of schools the author of a glossy Department for Education and Skills brochure had in mind 10 years ago when they wrote: "In the classroom of the future, the learning environment will look and feel different."

As a prediction, it didn't sound particularly radical or shocking even then. And in the intervening decade the clamour, in some quarters, for a different approach to schooling has only increased. But so far it has had a very limited effect.

Campaigners for change argue that we have been using a factory model of teaching designed for a factory age that is now all but over. The internet means that knowledge is available to everyone, instantly. That easy access means that the once-unassailable views of experts are now open to challenge; a teacher is no longer essential in acquiring knowledge and might be more useful as a guide in a more personalised approach to learning.

Online education expert Stephen Heppell has long been one of the most convincing advocates for change. "What a bizarre egg-box world we live in where we are dragooning people into tiny boxes, 30 in a room, where the only thing that they have got in common is that they were born between two Septembers," he told educationalists in 2006.

Gerry's learning plazas are definitely not tiny boxes. Huge double-storey spaces, fitted out with soft furnishings and mood lighting, they combine a mini lecture theatre, tables for group work, quiet study areas and a more conventional classroom all in one.

The plazas offer teachers huge flexibility in the way they can teach groups of typically 80-90 pupils in several different ways at the same time. The various methods employed - such as project work - may have been used elsewhere, but it is the way they allow teams of teachers to work together on a consistent, everyday level that offers the real breakthrough.

The academies see this departure from "teachers as lone practitioners" as essential in ensuring that staff possess the social and communication skills they are supposed to be helping pupils to gain.

"It is also moving away from having a shut-the-door approach, to being part of a team and getting feedback all the time," Cornwallis principal David Simons says.

"There is nowhere really to hide. But it is not used as a stick. It is used as a means of moving people forward."

Approaches like this offer "tomorrow's future today", according to the sign outside the academy. But it is a future that few seem to want to embrace.

Six years after Heppell's speech and more than a decade into the 21st century, a large-scale change from that 19th-century model still seems at least a generation away.

In December, a brand-new state secondary in south London was named the best-designed building in Europe.

It is not hard to see why the judges of the 2011 Stirling Prize for architecture were impressed by the Evelyn Grace Academy. With its sleek, shiny glass and steel, Z-shaped exterior, the Brixton school looks like the epitome of what advocates for change like to call a "third millennium learning space".

But go inside and look at the rooms where the learning will actually take place and you will see, in the words of Peter Walker, the academy's principal, something "quite traditional".

Ark, the charity that runs the academy, points out that there is some flexibility over the size of rooms built in. But essentially, as Walker says: "There is a spine with classrooms coming off it which provide the simple four walls needed."

In other words, at the end of an #163;8.65 billion school building splurge in which #163;13 million was specifically dedicated to designing a "classroom of the future", the country's most celebrated, futuristic-looking new school has been constructed around a blueprint developed nearly one-and-a-half centuries ago.

Andy Jones, vice-chair of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, believes that these things can make a difference to how pupils are taught. He has observed many pockets of innovative teaching taking place in schools all over the country.

But he argues that such inventive and creative instincts are often overpowered by a "negative hegemony", based around didactic teaching and physically reinforced by school design.

"If you walk through a typical high school, despite all the new-build, all the new spaces and all the new practice, the dominating model is still 30 kids sitting in rows, facing a whiteboard with a teacher usually at the front," Jones, dean of Manchester Metropolitan University's Institute of Education, says. "Despite all the rhetoric, it isn't actually different in some of the spatial arrangements from what you would have seen in a Victorian classroom."

So Heppell's "egg-box world" is alive and well and ready for at least another 30 years of teaching.

Knowsley, a local authority that has described itself as "an innovation zone and a test bed for wider government urban policy", is an exception that proves the rule.

The Merseyside council has embraced the whole agenda with gusto (see box on page 33), although its experience may help to explain why the much-anticipated learning revolution has yet to take off.

First, there is the need to convince parents that changing a pattern of education that is more than a century old and replacing schools with "learning centres" is a good idea.

Religious sensitivities may have contributed to last year's closure proposals at the new joint Roman Catholic-Church of England Christ the King learning centre, but the huge number of empty places also suggested that it had failed to capture imaginations in the way that was hoped.

As far as exam results are concerned, Knowsley's radical experiment has delivered some improvement. But in comparative terms, the authority is back where it began - right at the bottom of the national GCSE league table.

Go beyond the flashy new multimillion-pound non-school buildings and buzz phrases such as "democratised space" and you can begin to see why.

A head at one of Knowsley's new learning centres told TES: "You no longer need to go to school to get knowledge. You can use Google and find out anything you want at the press of a button."

The implication was that instead of inculcating knowledge, schools should be teaching pupils how to analyse and interpret it.

Many also make the related point that in a fast-changing world, there is little point in teaching knowledge that is likely to become irrelevant by the time pupils reach adulthood.

But will it really? The advent of the internet has not suddenly wiped centuries of history clean; the basic laws of physics still apply; Shakespeare is still a great writer; and two and two still make four.

If you don't learn these things, acquire this knowledge during the 10,000-plus hours you spend in school, then when will you? The fact that it is available online does not mean that people have the time or inclination to learn it for themselves.

And that is likely to be an even greater problem in deprived areas such as Knowsley, where pupils may lack the resources and support at home enjoyed by some of their more middle-class counterparts.

The notion that we can acquire knowledge later on, after school, when it suits us, is nothing new. Public libraries have been around for decades, but their existence has never persuaded people that schools should spend less time imparting knowledge. So why should the internet do the same now?

Of course, it would be unfair to write off an entire approach to education on the basis of a single unguarded remark from a head, however unintentionally revealing.

Many schools trying to depart from the 19th-century teaching blueprint regard the supposed dichotomy between knowledge and skills as entirely false: they are trying to deliver both.

Gerry notes: "A number of children in the past got exam results here, but they were unemployable. It is the social skills that are critical in our society.

"When you notice the number of foreign waiters and waitresses in this country, you ask yourself, 'There are a million unemployed young people - many of them with adequate qualifications - so why are our native people not being employed?' It is because they lack those skills."

The problem for state schools making huge efforts to equip pupils with these extra attributes that they need in order to succeed in life is that the system they operate in gives them little credit for it.

The Knowsley head argued that her project-based approach to the curriculum encouraged pupils to work independently, giving them greater self-confidence. But that will not show up in the exam results that remain the bottom line for Ofsted and the government.

Dylan Wiliam, of the University of London's Institute of Education, believes a further problem is a lack of research in England, which prevents a proper evaluation of the approaches that the likes of Gerry are developing.

"There is a lot of experimentation going on and some schools are getting good success," the expert in teaching quality says.

"But without proper research to evaluate that, you don't know whether the success is coming from the model they are using or that they happened to have particularly good teachers in that school, for example. So at the moment we are not learning an awful lot that we can disseminate."

If anything, ministers' current back-to-basics approach means that the agenda in England is moving even further away from the radical solutions favoured by Knowsley and Heppell.

The current national curriculum review is aimed at stripping it down to "essential" subject knowledge and is proposing that all pupils should progress through this content at the same pace. Meanwhile, aspiring heads of England's toughest secondaries are being sent on government-funded trips to visit American charter schools that emphasise strict discipline and didactic teaching in cramped classrooms.

Michael Gove's free schools were originally billed as experimental laboratories in education. But of the 24 that have opened so far, the most high-profile is inspired by traditional grammar schools and specialises in Latin.

The coalition says that its reforms are based on international evidence of what works from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). However, it is schools such as Gerry's that visitors from higher performers in Pisa such as Finland are interested in seeing, and it is these academies and Knowsley's learning centres that are highlighted as global exemplars of innovation by the software giant Microsoft.

Outside England's educational politics - with their heavy American influence - a very different agenda seems to be taking hold. Asian territories with impressive Pisa records that ministers in England want to emulate, such as Hong Kong, are now desperately trying to introduce more skills-based elements to their curriculum. The implication of the "subject knowledge" direction of the current reforms in England is that they are making a mistake.

Evolutionary solutions

Yet, amid this conservatism, some do intend to use Gove's reforms to create something very different. Peter Hyman, a former speechwriter for Tony Blair, who plans to open his own free school in September, argued last year that pupils were being prepared for the middle of the 20th century rather than the 21st.

"It is potty that a classroom now in most schools (is) the same as 100 years ago," he said. "That's both tedious for the teacher and tedious for the student.

"So why not break up the school day into some one-to-one sessions where you're being guided by a coach, some small-group sessions, a bit like a seminar. Why not go to a lesson of that sort, again tailored to the learning you want out of that lesson? Why not go to a lecture theatre then, and have a really exciting lecture with 50 students? Now that's a learning revolution."

It is also almost exactly the same model that Baumber is currently introducing to three English academies. It has been tried and tested in the Swedish free-schools system, which originally inspired Gove, since 1999.

To replicate it here would mean huge changes to England's schools. A Kunskapsskolan lower secondary (12-15) in Stockholm visited by TES had no classrooms at all. Traditional rows of desks and chairs had been replaced by a large university-style lecture theatre and a series of smaller rooms. The tiniest was no more than a cubbyhole with space for one pupil to work, while the largest had room for 15.

These rooms are just spaces. There is nothing fancy about them - nothing to match the shiny new plazas of Gerry's academies. But the model they are based on is even more radical because it dispenses completely with conventional school timetables.

At Kunskapsskolan schools in Sweden, pupils decide for themselves how they will learn in weekly 20-minute meetings with a personal tutor. That might involve pupils attending a lecture, a smaller workshop with other pupils, or even working at home on their own. It doesn't matter - as long as the pupil's learning targets are met.

But the constraints of existing buildings at Kunskapsskolan's academies - two in Richmond, west London, and another in Suffolk - mean that Baumber has had to introduce the model gradually over three years.

And even then, for the time being at least, he is aiming for a result that is still 50 per cent traditionally teacher-led, with half the time being spent in more flexible workshops. In Kunskapsskolan's Swedish schools, only one-third of the time is teacher-led.

Opening purpose-built lecture theatres, seminar and workshop rooms is only one side of the task that Baumber has faced in trying to make the model work properly. The other has been preparing teachers for a personal tutoring approach that he admits is "challenging" and "very different" from what they would find in most schools here.

"Inevitably, teachers have to back off, allow the student to set their goals and start to trust them and give them the skills to take responsibility for those," he explains.

"It is flipping the classroom around from being the purveyor of all the information to being able to support and guide the student to reach those goals. It is not the way that we, in England, have been taught how to work."

Wiliam warns: "We have been here before. There was a craze in the 1970s for open-plan schools. Waterford School in ILEA (Inner London Education Authority) in the Abbey Wood area had one open space for 90 kids and within a year they had it partitioned."

The reason it was abandoned, he says, was that "people underestimated the amount of expertise that teachers already had in one model of teaching and how much time it would take to develop new expertise".

"It could have worked, but only if teachers were given very light timetables for months if not years while they worked out ways of doing this," he says. "I think we are going to have to find evolutionary solutions rather than revolutionary solutions."

Jones argues that teacher trainers are trying to get students to innovate and not just "comply and fit into schools". But he says: "The big challenge is, how do you get teachers who have been practising a long time to shift and move their way forward? The best teachers have always needed to be flexible and to have a range of styles up their sleeves. But that is really difficult. You are asking an awful lot. They are out there, but I wouldn't say they are the majority."

So is a combination of "stuck-in-a-rut" teachers, ideological and political opposition, lack of academic proof and the determination needed to remodel schools and retrain teachers holding back the "learning revolution" the country so desperately needs?

Or is it that the schools and pedagogy we have grown used to are design classics that continue to work? After all, it is often the schools with very traditional approaches that achieve the best exam results. And look at the world of work - there has been no suggestion that the layout of offices should radically change because of technology.

Perhaps the internet may prove a more accurate model of what is really going on. In the 1990s dotcom boom, this new technology threatened to sweep all before it, then very little happened and many of the new companies went bust.

It is only now, some 10-15 years later, that people are beginning to comprehend the enormity of the change they are living through.

Changes such as "flip learning" - in which pupils get their basic instruction through online lessons - could be about to do the same in education.

As Wiliam says: "If teachers are going to spend their time standing in front of kids and talking, then they are going to be out of a job very soon because you can get a video to do it cheaper."

In the end, perhaps it will be the now-defunct high-street shops that offer the best lesson to teachers and schools. By the time they caught up with the technological changes surrounding them, it was too late to adapt. They disappeared altogether.


Back in 2001, when Knowsley was rooted to the bottom of the secondary league tables, it opted for a "mind-based learning" programme. An audit of pupil "learning styles" concluded that the majority were "kinaesthetic learners" who learned best through physical activity. Teaching methods and school buildings were changed accordingly.

The authority, serving one of the most deprived areas in the country, replaced its 11 secondaries with seven "learning centres". Designed around a project-based, skills-focused curriculum, the buildings, worth #163;157 million, included break-out spaces that allowed pupils to work away from formal classrooms.

One centre replaced conventional subject titles with cross-curricular themes with titles such as "disasters and dilemmas", "dreams" and "talk time". Pupils could download lessons and some teachers were renamed "progress leaders".

But last year the council announced that it wanted to close one of these new "learning palaces" just two years after it opened, reportedly blaming hundreds of empty desks on an "unfair public perception" and competition from schools "outside the borough".

Eventually, Knowsley gave the #163;24 million centre a reprieve, but more bad news followed.

It emerged in January that just 3 per cent of pupils in the authority had got a C or above in the six "core" academic GCSEs that make up the English Baccalaureate.

A spokeswoman for Knowsley Council explained that many of its pupils opted to take vocational subjects.

But its latest performance on the key five A*-C GCSE or "equivalent", including English or maths anchor measure, which does include vocational subjects and qualifications, offers little encouragement.

Knowsley is once again at the very bottom of the national league table.

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