Dare to be different

11th July 2008 at 01:00
Do you long to liberate yourself from the tyranny of the national curriculum and key stage tests? Kathryn Pollard tells the story of how she changed from being a safe teacher, obsessed with toeing the Government line, to an educational maverick
Do you long to liberate yourself from the tyranny of the national curriculum and key stage tests? Kathryn Pollard tells the story of how she changed from being a safe teacher, obsessed with toeing the Government line, to an educational maverick

Imagine yourself sitting comfortably, established in a good secondary school, secure in your career, successful in your teaching and enjoying your professional life. Then along comes a headteacher who says he wants to change the way you teach, discard the conventional curriculum and end your subservience to national tests.

This happened to me. And this is the story of how I changed from being a "safe" teacher, obsessed with preparation and paperwork, to a maverick with subversive tendencies.

Along the way there was exhaustion, frustration, doubts and the anxiety of having the rug pulled out from under my feet. But seven years later, I can safely say that I've had the time of my life.

It started in 2000, when Patrick Hazlewood, our headteacher at St John's School and Community College in Marlborough, Wiltshire, decided that, although we were a good school with good results, we were coasting, and could get more out of our pupils.

He asked if staff wanted to take part in creating a new curriculum. Eighteen out of 80 staff volunteered, while some of the rest were sceptical, and keen to distance themselves if anything went wrong. In the early days, it wasn't all plain sailing. The main concern for teachers was questioning if we were doing it the right way. Classrooms were noisy and chaotic. One boy said to me: "I like your lessons, Miss, but we don't do any real work." Like many teachers, his idea of real work was sitting quietly and writing things down.

But the process of thinking up the new curriculum was exhilarating. We came up with six main themes - Being unique, Making the news, Higher faster stronger, Going places, Forests, Counting the cost - to cover with our pilot group in Year 7.

Then we bounced around ideas and created links between subjects to produce a curriculum mind map, a network of ideas and skills that we were going to cover over the six modules, as opposed to a linear curriculum. We did not kick out the national curriculum as such. But we made sure we came at it from a new angle, on our own terms, as opposed to plodding through QCA schemes of work. Our pilot group comprised 86 pupils and the control group, 166. Both groups had the same balance of boys, girls, abilities and additional needs.

The first three weeks of Year 7 were set aside for a module called "tools of the trade", where we concentrated on developing key skills, such as problem solving, teamwork and self-awareness.

After that, we embarked on a series of six-week modules. At the start of each lesson, teachers would outline which of the key skills were going to be developed that day, and pupils would record their experiences in a dedicated learning log. Hour-long lessons sometimes ran into double or even triple periods, and cross-curricular projects could go on for several weeks. Even classroom layouts changed, as desks were moved around for pupils to work in different groups.

One project, based on the forest, spanned half a dozen subject areas. The pupils had to plan a visit to the local woodland - writing letters to parents and carrying out a health and safety assessment - and come up with ideas for the lesson.

They wrote tourist information leaflets in several languages (for budding linguists); used maths techniques to guess the height of trees; launched a cafe selling forest and organic foods (for food technology); and planned signs and branding to improve their design abilities. Lessons weren't just a matter of imparting subject content, but of developing key skills. For example, a food technology lesson on making pizza might teach them how to set and meet deadlines, and exercise creativity in their choice of ingredients, as well as just making food.

At our school, there were fears that curriculum content wouldn't be covered, and that Ofsted wouldn't approve, especially as the year group was managed by a cross-curricular team of teachers, rather than the normal set-up of a dozen or more subject specialists taking separate lessons.

In fact, we have found the opposite. Ofsted encourages this sort of learning. The inspection framework specifies that schools should respond to local circumstances, and contribute to pupils' wellbeing and personal development. Last year, Ofsted rated our curriculum as outstanding.

And the law gives schools a freedom to innovate. They can apply to the Department for Children, Schools and Families to suspend parts of education law under the 2006 Education Act in order to try out radical new ideas.

The second "Yes, but ..." is the argument about maintaining and improving progression. If you give teachers and pupils more freedom, won't test results suffer?

Again, we found the opposite. In 2002, our pilot group achieved between 15 and 18 per cent higher scores in Year 7 optional national tests than the control group that had followed a standard national curriculum course. Key stage 3 results continue to improve. Of the 86 pupils in the pilot, 54 took between two and five GCSEs a year early, achieving 82 per cent grades A* to C. The following year all pupils achieved only 68 per cent A* to C, yet both had the same mixed ability profile on entry in Year 7.

It has improved social and emotional skills too. A child with 65 per cent burns was dreading transition into secondary school. His new class explored what it was like to be him and developed the confidence to tackle insensitive comments. They also developed the skills to manage his attitude, taking it in turns to include him in their groups.

With all these pupils learning independently and creatively, you're probably wondering how we keep track of their progress. After all, we cannot use national curriculum levels to record skill development. The solution is that we have developed our own ways to collect and store data, which reflects the type of learning we do and the skills we promote, such as self-esteem, critical curiosity and problem solving. With a bit of thought, it is possible to give these qualitative skills a value.

Our skill descriptors are measured on a one to five scale. Five would be highly competent, when the skill is used independently, a two would be where the skill is developing, and there is still significant reliance on the teacher. Each skill is assessed three times a year, based on specific tasks prepared by the teacher, and data is kept in teachers' mark books. It's in our computer system, and printed in annual reports. We use separate tasks to identify the obligatory national curriculum levels. Groups of teachers can then track pupils and identify where there might be problems.

Despite our unconventional approach, the most memorable complaint I have had from a parent is when one wrote in concerned that their child was so involved in work they didn't have a life.

And what of those sceptical teachers? Many have seen the benefits of enthusiastic and capable learners and are part of the teams delivering this curriculum to Years 7 and 8. A few stalwarts remain sceptical, but we accept that as a school we represent a full spectrum of opinion. Some found it hard to adapt, but it is here to stay so they have either focused their energies on key stage 4 or 5 or moved on. The school ethos is one of aspiring to be the best and all teachers are expected to be pushing boundaries.

For many teachers, taking risks will require a different relationship with the pupils; there is much more negotiation and openness. Some teachers complained that our pupils had become arrogant, that they thought they could negotiate homework and suggest improvements to lessons.

In my view, they had simply become more active and alert. And when pupils are enthusiastic about learning, you have their support in dealing with bad behaviour.

My advice to anyone interested in waving goodbye to the old national curriculum is: go for it. Instead of coasting to retirement, I'm enthusiastic about going to work every day. I'd have to turn into a Time Lord to fit in everything I still want to achieve.

Kathryn Pollard is director of curriculum innovation at St John's School and Community College in Marlborough, a mixed comprehensive in Wiltshire. Additional writing by Madeleine Brettingham.


St John's is a large mixed-sex comprehensive in Marlborough, operating over two sites. It has more than 1,500 pupils, including 265 sixth formers, and became a specialist technology college in 1998. Pupils come from a range of backgrounds, with a low proportion of ethnic minorities. The last inspection, in 2005, said the school was good with outstanding features. GCSE results are above average, with 68 per cent of pupils achieving five or more A*-C grade.


- Take the initiative. Permission to innovate exists. Teaching creatively is not against the law, it's actually promoted by it.

- Be prepared for dissent - it's impossible to convince all staff that change is for the better. Disregard the skeptics and trust your professional intuition.

- Collect data to show how your pupils are doing before you change your teaching style. That way you can measure progress.

- Share the burden. Create an effective, supportive team with positive values and a shared vision.

- Make sure everyone agrees on and understands the skill set. You can use the Royal Society of Art's Opening Minds approach, as we did, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's Personal Learning and Thinking Skills, or a mixture.

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