The children know best

4th March 2005 at 00:00
A Staffordshire primary has given its timetable a radical overhaul and made pupils responsible for a large slice of their learning. All this and 'workforce remodelling' too. Reports Steven Hastings

The discussion around the table in the headteacher's office is about effective learning. Phrases such as "success criteria" and "thinking skills" trip easily off the tongue. There's talk of the need for "resilience" to overcome "learning barriers". But this is not a posse of visiting Department for Education and Skills officials, nor even the senior management of a forward-thinking comprehensive. It's a group of nine and 10-year-olds at Huntington primary school in Staffordshire.

Huntington takes learning seriously. An NQT arrives at the head's office to borrow a weighty book on creative thinking. The walls are awash with flow charts promising "drive, delivery, action". But this is pedagogy with a purpose, and the purpose is to make learning fun.

"When I arrived here four years ago we tried to work out what we wanted the school to be," says headteacher Clare Robertson. "We knew we wanted to give the children ownership of their learning and allow them to be creative. But we didn't know how we were going to get there or what it would look like in the classroom." And what does it look like? "It looks like fun. And it sounds like excitement, with lots of noise, talk and laughter. The flow charts may look boring, but they give us permission for chaos to happen."

Some of the flow charts keep track of the timetable at Huntington, itself the result of creative thinking. The teaching year is divided into five seven-week blocks, each structured around one of the five thinking skills outlined in the national curriculum: evaluation, creativity, information processing, enquiry and reasoning. During each seven-week period, all the work delivered in every subject focuses on one of these skills.

From scientific inquiry to historical investigation, the 305 children at Huntington learn explicitly that skills are transferable. Except for literacy, numeracy, RE, music and PE, which remain on the weekly timetable, subjects are taught in blocks, with as many trips and outings as possible.

So children may have three weeks of science all afternoon followed by a fortnight's geography.

"It means a deeper kind of learning can take place," says Ms Robertson. So what's a deeper kind of learning? "We had several bags of dead mackerel here last week," she explains, part of a two-week art project involving close observation and ICT research into underwater life. It has produced imaginative drawings, paintings and models. The year 3 fish artists are enthusiastic about developing ideas over an extended period. As one of them says: "Sometimes imagination takes a long time to happen."

Creative, co-ordinated timetabling of this kind relies on staff working together, which made the opportunity to join the workforce remodelling pilot scheme too good to miss. The single post of deputy at Huntington had already been replaced with four team leaders, each in charge of a separate age group. Remodelling has freed these leaders and their teams from teaching for half a day each week to develop joint ideas while their classes are taken by teaching assistants. "Who's to say there aren't things that an assistant can deliver just as well as a teacher?" says Ms Robertson. "It's about finding out what those things are."

The trick has been to allow the support staff to teach what they feel comfortable with: anything from ICT to philosophy, or helping the children complete their learning logs. While some pupils have seen the changes as a green light to test boundaries of behaviour, most say lessons with the assistants have been enjoyable and productive. "It can be better than having a teacher," says one pupil, "because it's more relaxed." So, on balance, the remodelled arrangement works well. It's on the balance sheet that problems have arisen.

The TAs are being paid for the extra hours they put in to attend staff meetings and spend more liaison time with teachers. And when they're covering a lesson, they get a higher rate. But with only an extra pound;6,500 promised in next year's budget to enable remodelling - a sum Ms Robertson describes as "insultingly meagre" - there's not enough to sustain existing staffing.

"It's not that I don't feel capable of teaching whole classes," says assistant Sharon Charlesworth. "I just don't see why I should do the work of the teacher if I'm not paid the same money." The financial fly in the ointment also means some of the TAs' other tasks, such as providing one-to-one support, have had to be reduced, with more cuts likely elsewhere to balance the budget. "This is one of the most important initiatives since the national curriculum," says Ms Robertson. "But the Government isn't funding it properly."

Only five years after coming out of special measures, Huntington doesn't want money worries getting in the way of its progress. The village and the school, on the edge of the West Midlands conurbation, have been through some hard times since the local pit closed in the 1980s. Nurturing self-esteem in the staffroom, the classroom and the community has been an important element in Ms Robertson's creative approach. "My predecessor did a good job of stabilising the school, but there was still a great deal of fear and anxiety among the staff," she says. "Going into special measures de-professionalises teachers. They lose sight of what they know."

But if staff were once reluctant to try new ideas, that has certainly changed. "We're not afraid to give anything a go," says Lesley Bennett, team leader for years 1 and 2. And so brain gym, meditation tapes, philosophy classes and t'ai chi all feature, while classrooms have a "peace bowl" filled with smooth stones and a candle. "We light the candle and then invite the children to send out love to the world or to each other." This might sound like the sort of thing schools get away with in leafy suburbs, but what do parents in a traditional former mining village make of it all? "One or two asked us what the point is," says Ms Bennett. "In fact they've been quite cross. But when they see the work the children produce, they're happy. If we are educating the whole person and developing creativity, we can't ignore the spiritual side. We want children to be sensitive to others and to think about the world."

If Huntington had a motto, it would probably be "sensitivity and creativity". The standard of artwork on display is outstanding and the school pays for music lessons for any child wanting to learn an instrument.

A recent two-week programme of work on fair trade also touched on political sensitivities. "Some children struggled with their emotions," says Ms Robertson. "They found the feelings of unfairness and injustice difficult to cope with."

But Huntington pupils take most things confidently in their stride, especially when it comes to their own learning. They talk frankly about their work, which they are encouraged to mark themselves. But isn't marking part of the teacher's job? Dumb question. "No, it's our job," says one pupil. "How else are we going to learn from our mistakes?"

Many children also have a "learning interview" with Ms Robertson, where they reflect on how they learn best, which teaching styles they respond to, and what difficulties they have faced. Asked to identify possible obstacles to learning, one child suggests a particular class is too noisy. Another complains that one of her teachers shouts. With comments fed back to staff, it's the kind of pupil power that even some secondary schools are reluctant to tap into. Here at Huntington it's seen as a natural consequence of asking children to take ownership of their learning from the day they start school.

"As soon as I started interviewing the children about their learning I thought, 'Why have I never done this before?'" says Ms Robertson. "They have all the answers."

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