Early risers

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Big school just got bigger: an independent is lowering its age range and offering a Sats-free switch from primary to secondary, reports Steven Hastings

An independent secondary school opens its doors to Year 6 pupils next September, as part of a project that promises a radical alternative to the traditional primary environment. The Big Six scheme, run by Wolverhampton grammar, will offer 10-year-olds an approach based around thinking skills rather than factual knowledge, with sizeable chunks of the week given over to music, sport, art and drama. Above all, it will be Sats-free learning - although would-be pupils will be subject to "assessment days" before they are accepted. "We want to stimulate children's minds, not waste time preparing for tests," says headteacher Bernard Trafford.

Cynics might suggest he would also like to see a larger school roll, and that expanding the age range is one way to achieve this. But while Dr Trafford concedes there is some truth in this - the last beneficiaries of the assisted places scheme depart next summer, leaving vacancies behind - he insists there is more to Big Six than slick marketing and a catchy title.

"Yes, we have spare places, but I sincerely believe that, in this case, commercial and educational good sense go hand in hand. We are offering something new and exciting," he says.

But then Dr Trafford has never been afraid to break the mould. His two daughters were educated at home in their primary years, while the driving motivation of his tenure at Wolverhampton grammar has been an effort to democratise the school by allowing pupils to make key decisions. In some ways, Big Six is an extension of these principles: the underlying philosophy is that children will "learn how to learn", allowing them to take control of their own learning throughout secondary education.

In practice, that means getting to grips with investigative enquiry, and, drawing on the work of three leading educational theorists - Guy Claxton, Howard Gardner and Daniel Goleman - exploring concepts of multiple and emotional intelligence. But cut through the jargon and it means something much simpler - putting the fun back into learning. "There are children at the top end of primary education who are not enjoying school," says Dr Trafford. "Many of them are bored. We often turn down borderline candidates at Year 7 because they just don't seem switched on to learning. You look for that gleam in the eye, and, sadly, it's not always there."

He realises this could be interpreted as a slur on the best efforts of feeder primaries. Yet he is sympathetic, rather than critical. "If you're under pressure to boost Sats results, it's more difficult to make lessons exciting. But there are some dissatisfied parents out there, and we want to offer them an alternative."

He is adamant that Big Six will provide something genuinely different. "We won't be working towards government targets. We'll be designing a year's curriculum from scratch. Even as an independent school, there's often pressure to mirror what's happening elsewhere. Sometimes you have to go your own way."

But independent schools are not free to go down any road they please. The school has had to apply to the Department for Education and Skills for permission to change its age of entry and will need to provide evidence that the children will be following a properly considered curriculum. And the promise of a no-Sats diet does not always reassure parents or pupils, who like to see evidence of progress - which inevitably means some kind of testing.

"It's true," he says. "It isn't enough just to have a bright, sparky child - parents need to believe goals are being met. The danger is that you invent Sats by another name. The challenge is to design tests that measure skills rather than content."

Few of his teachers have taught this age group before - which Dr Trafford sees as an advantage. He believes the lack of preconceptions should make for originality in the curriculum. He also hopes planning a new way of learning for Big Six will encourage staff to review teaching higher up the school. "It may well change everything we do. I hope it does."

But while Big Six may have a radical impact on teaching at his school, it is unlikely to herald a wider revolution. Next year, there will be just one class of pupils - Dr Trafford says he'll be happy with 15 "although my dream is two classes of 20" - a large proportion of whom will be siblings of children already at the school. Most new pupils - about 90 - will arrive, as usual, in Year 7. "I don't think the system will change in the foreseeable future," he says. "It's too entrenched. Besides, I don't think Big Six is right for everyone. If a child is enjoying the last year at primary school and is properly stimulated, my advice would be to leave him or her where they are."

That's a message junior schools in the Wolverhampton area will be glad to hear. Not surprisingly, some of them see the new scheme as a form of trespass. "They haven't all been best pleased," admits Dr Trafford, who has gone out of his way to reassure neighbouring primaries that Big Six is a unique project, and not the first step towards a Wolverhampton grammar junior school. Yet the fact remains that the school is a new competitor in the marketplace - fees for the Big Six year have been set at pound;6,000, 25 per cent lower than standard fees, bringing them into line with junior independent school prices.

Big Six also plans to combine other aspects of primary and secondary education, with a view to smoothing the notoriously bumpy transition between the two. For example, form teachers will have far more contact than with a typical secondary class. And there will be plenty of input from subject specialists. "One of the most exciting aspects is that Big Six children will have more specialist tuition in sport, music and drama - and better facilities for these - than in most junior schools. Our staff are excited about what might be achieved in the long term, given an extra year working with children at such a formative age," says Dr Trafford.

He is aware of potential pitfalls: that staff unused to the age-group may push the 10-year-olds too hard, or that Big Six pupils will spend Year 7 repeating their learning as newcomers "catch up". "But we're confident we can meet all the different challenges. Nine out of every 10 educational initiatives succeed. The risk is tiny if you have genuine energy and creativity - and the courage to be independent. We're an independent school, and in this case we are asserting our independence," he says.

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