The Conversation: Four schools in one

27th December 2007 at 00:00
Many new schools rely on an atrium to create that wow factor, but The Leigh Technology Academy in Dartford, Kent, is attracting attention with a radical new vision for education. Frank Green, its chief executive, tells Geoff Barton all about it.

Q: You're in the enviable position of building a new school and, of all the designs I've seen, yours is the one most clearly rooted in a distinctive educational vision. How would you describe what you hope to achieve?

A: Simply to try to give the best start to as many young people as possible, with the capacity to change and with a positive outlook on life.

This means using the best research and evidence of what works for young people, but always founded on those fundamentals of good human society: tolerance, moral fortitude, community and good manners. It means understanding both the needs of, and necessities for, young people, and packaging them appropriately.

From this you construct the curriculum, the work environment, the learning time and the school structure. What we are moving towards is one possible answer to building the school of the 21st century.

Q: Tell me about how the building relates to your model of learning.

A: At the start of the design process, our curriculum was built on a modular framework, with significant vocational entitlement at key stage 4. We had already introduced a two-year KS3 and a three-year KS4, with four 80-minute lessons per day and a "vertical" tutor group system, from ages 11 to 19. The curriculum was built entirely upon departments.

Then we considered some of the latest research into what makes an effective, technologically rich learning environment and concluded that we should use larger teaching groups with more adults for longer periods of time and integrate aspects of the curriculum where practical. As a result, much of the new building has double-sized classrooms for around 60 students and 3 to 4 adults, with break-out areas so the group is not restricted to a single room. We plan to have two 3-hour learning sessions per day.

The other factor that influenced perhaps the biggest change of all was discovering the link between school size and delinquency. Consequently we have broken up the academy into four small schools, each with their own principal and core staff. Specialist areas of technology, arts and PE remain, and these provide services to each school as required. So the new building has four main blocks, one for each school, with shared facilities adjacent. Core departments have been split into four core teams, each with full responsibility for their KS3 and 4 students.

Q: It sounds radical. How have parents, governors and staff reacted?

A: Because there has been a steady stream of innovation in the past 10 years and generally strong improvement in performance, we have built up trust with our key stakeholders. They see the changes as part of a progression and, broadly speaking, have confidence in our ability to improve. There are concerns, but none so far that we haven't been able to counter. The key is trust.

Q: What's the thinking behind the vertical tutoring system? Does it make any impact beyond the social?

A: The initial driving force was the evidence - first shown to me many years ago by Carol Fitz-Gibbon, professor of education - that young people learn best from other young people about two years ahead of them. This research has been carried out a number of times over the years and it led me to think about how we make use of this information in managing our schools. The more I thought about it, the more I was sure that we don't make use of this data in any systematic way. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more sure I became that we do the exact opposite - by structuring schools in horizontal silos (year groups) - and then doing our best not to allow them to mix. The social reasons were a secondary consideration, but are just as important.

GB: Fascinating - thank you. We hear lots about vision, values and innovation, and every newly-built school seems to have an atrium and other fancy stuff. What's so distinctive here is your absolute translation of an educational philosophy into a working environment.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.

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