Children in control

4th February 2005 at 00:00
At Cardiff high, pupils can call the shots, and meaningless homework is out. Biddy Passmore reports

In Cardiff the pupils are taking control. Aided and abetted - but, above all, consulted - by their teachers, they are saying what and how they want to learn, what kind of homework they find useful and even marking each other's work.

At Cardiff high, the flagship comprehensive in the affluent north of the city, achievement is already impressive. Ninety per cent of pupils reach level 5 or more at key stage 3, and 82 per cent achieve five or more A*-C grades at GCSE. But there is no question of resting on their laurels.

"If you do that, you're going to fall flat on your face," says chemistry teacher Natasha Charles, head of Year 11 and member of the school's five-person learning forum planning group. "Why not do something new?"

Mike Griffiths, head of the school, sets out his teaching and learning philosophy. "It's very simple," he says. "My role is to create a climate conducive to learning, to encourage staff to take risks.

"We're giving pupils a challenging environment," he says, "where the teacher stops taking the lead and provides pupils with opportunities to think."

Teachers at the school have developed their thinking skills approach with the help of grants from the General Teaching Council for Wales, which have enabled them to attend courses and conferences.

New teaching methods are shared among staff at one-day, in-service training workshops, to which all are invited, and at termly learning forums.

Leslie Williams, a geography teacher who co-ordinates research, says about 30 per cent of staff undertake classroom-based inquiry.

In one project, teachers at the school have consulted pupils about how they like to learn. The pupils designed a questionnaire asking which topics they have most enjoyed, and why, and how they think they work best - with a friend, someone of the same ability or someone of higher ability. They found pupils did not want to sit next to their best friend but, in science for instance, preferred to sit with someone of higher ability.

This consultation was taken to a higher level with the creation of the school parliament, established two years ago to elicit pupils' views on whole-school issues, from bullying to toilets. Two pupils from each year are elected by secret ballot.

The parliament set up a review of school homework policy, using a focus group of 12 pupils. Their report, described by an assistant head as one of the most powerful pieces of evidence she had seen in 30 years, was a model of clarity.

"The group feels strongly that meaningless pieces of homework should be abolished," it said. "We define meaningless as colouring homework and posters not used for displays."

As a result of the inquiry, the school now has an "own work" rather than a "homework" policy, there is better co-ordination between departments to avoid overloading pupils and there is no more colouring-in.

Dylan Jones, head of history and assistant head for teaching and learning, uses peer assessment to get pupils to think harder about an issue.

"Before they do an essay, I agree with them beforehand that they will be assessing each other's work - commenting on its strengths, suggesting areas for improvement - and that makes them think more analytically."

He points out, however, that in a mixed-ability school, care needs to be taken over who is marking whose work.

A GCSE English class shows the thinking-skills approach. Jude Brigley, head of English and co-ordinator of the gifted and talented programme, gets the creative juices going with a few exercises. The Year 11 boys and girls cross their arms and wiggle their earlobes, flutter their fingers and then write a short passage, first with their right hand and then with their left.

Then she places an onion on each table and asks them to write about how it is like love. The result is some striking prose and poetry and a preparation for reading their set text, Carol Ann Duffy's poem about giving her Valentine an onion.

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