Case study: Leigh CTC

28th March 2003 at 00:00
We seem to be examining in a formal, public way everything that is taught at school. Children can take take well over 100 public exams which are marked by external examiners almost every year that they are at school.

Every subject also has coursework that has to be completed to deadlines throughout the year. For many students, the tensions caused by this process are fast strangling creativity and breadth. Are we just measuring the capacity of teachers and students to prepare for exams? Do exams only test the capacity of the individual to cope under pressure?

Public exams that test knowledge and skills are essential, not just to ensure that young adults are properly literate and numerate, but also so that we, the public, can be sure our taxes are being spent wisely. But, to paraphrase Topsy, our examination system "just growed" and is now becoming a monster that is devouring children, teachers and parents - not to mention an ever-growing slice of the education budget and the school year. There must be another way, before the system and the people collapse under the strain. We need to balance the pressures for accountability with the pressure on learning time (as opposed to drilling for exams) and the pressures on facilities (not every classroom can also be an exam hall all the time).

At first sight, our plans at Leigh CTC look to be making matters worse rather than better. We are planning to enter all our students for key stage 3 SATs in Year 8. We don't intend to move the whole education process back a year, but to create space and opportunity by allotting five years to key stages 4 and 5 rather than four. We believe this will allow more time for a wider range of activities and courses that are "off the treadmill".

Wouldn't it be nice to allow students to spend a month in France? They might learn to speak French. Or, what about the history student who wants to work on an archaeological site that is only available for the next month? Surely we should be able to allow her to have that time off to pursue an activity that will help her education?

As we will have all the contents of our curriculum on our intranet and on the internet next year, I'm comfortable with the idea of students participating in other kinds of learning that don't fit into a one-hour lesson in a room with 30 desks. We intend to allow students to take their exams when they are ready and when the system allows. This should be at any time of the year and at any place.

We have already made a significant start: students have been visiting New York for their geography and leisure and tourism courses; we have had students on work placements for their science and business courses in France, Germany and Holland; and the annual ski trip departs for Italy next month. Other students have spent time visiting Manchester United football club, Cadbury World, theatres in the West End - all organised by our dedicated teachers. Then there is the work experience week or fortnight for Year 11, and the two-week problem-solving activity for Year 12s.

Our actions are about breaking the circle, because we have come to the conclusion that what level you achieve at key stage 3 doesn't matter (nobody asks you at your job interview or on your Ucas form what levels you got at key stage 3), but what does count is what you are like at 16 or 18.

Again the system has confused the formative with summative. So we have decided to create some space for our students and our staff. Mind you, it could be interesting next May when our Year 8 and 9s are doing SATs; we don't have an exam hall that can seat 450 students. But as an eternal optimist I intend to make the future even more successful than the present.

Frank Green is principal and chief executive of Leigh CTC in Dartford, Kent

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