Sports matches, field trips, choir practice; there's always something threatening to spoil your carefully planned timetable. Steve McCormack visits the school that has put a stop to lesson disruption by devoting every eleventh day to extracurricular activities
It's a brave school that tosses the timetable out of the window, abandons normal lessons, and devotes a whole day to trips, games and activities outside the confines of the national curriculum. It might happen for a week every July in what has become known as "activities week", but every fortnight? For a whole day? Woking high school, a mixed comprehensive in Surrey, has done just that. The school runs on a 10-day timetable, but on the eleventh day anything - except for conventional lessons - could happen.
"This is a day when more, not less, learning is going on," says the principal, Anne Turner. Two months into term she is more enthusiastic than ever about the idea. "Not many things have happened in education that have made me more excited."
Day Eleven, as it's now known, grew out of recognition that the timetable at Woking high was too frequently disrupted with one-off events; teachers complained that often they were "losing" children from timetabled lessons because of an off-site field trip or a day-long year group exercise. So, the school devised a solution that's halted haphazard disruption and created a regular, flexible slot for all sorts of enriching activities.
A strict rule now applies: every timetabled lesson on days one to 10 takes place as planned, usually with the right teacher and a full class. Anything and everything else happens on Day Eleven.
One Day Eleven in October, it's immediately clear this is no ordinary school day. At 9 o'clock, four buses sit outside the school gates, engines running, ready to take 100 Year 7s to Battle Abbey and Hastings, in Sussex, and 120 Year 9s to Kew Gardens in west London.
As the buses fill up, another hundred or so pupils are getting changed for the latest stage of the Years 10 and 11 inter-house football and basketball competitions. The rest are gathering in classrooms for a rich mix of activities. In a science lab three Year 8 classes are grouped together learning about optical illusions. Practical exercises include pupils experimenting with mirror writing, and creating coloured collages to entice and deceive the eye.
Down the corridor a group of Year 7s are dressing up to act out mini sketches they've written based on either EastEnders, Friends or the television news. The difference is that they're delivering their lines in French, and some of them aren't even studying the subject. Elsewhere, more pupils are watching a visiting theatre group perform a Shakespeare skit, before some thespian activity of their own. Round every corner, something's going on that wouldn't happen on a normal school day. To drive home the difference, the day is divided into four, not five, chunks and breaks and lunch are at different times.
The children's body language betrays a feeling that, to borrow from the Star Trek lexicon, "this is school, but not as they know it". "It's a day when we can relax," says Chris, from Year 10. "There's a different atmosphere around, and the teachers aren't doing the normal curriculum."
Josh, in Year 8, agrees. "I think it's quite good. We learn a bit more than normal."
"No one gets stressed out, and we don't get homework," says Sam, from Year 11.
When asked what they think Day Eleven is all about, most students use the word "fun". Shannon, in Year 8, is a little disappointed though, saying: "I thought it would be like an activity day, but it was just work." Her friend Tyler half-agrees, but adds that "it was fun work, though".
The organisational brain behind Day Eleven is Woking high's assistant principal, Jen Wilkinson, who stresses that all activities are umbilically linked to the aim of helping pupils learn more. "We want to give them lots of enriching, memorable experiences," she says. "But we'd also like it to be a motivating tool for some of the students struggling with normal school."
Over lunch in the hall, which is being prepared for an afternoon presentation from a local further education college, teachers compare notes. Most seem pleased to be able to offer something different from the routine timetable, and enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere permeating much of the school. After lunch, advanced skills maths teacher Marie Banks prepares to introduce a Year 11 group to the finer points of playing bingo, as an opener to a wide-ranging session on mental agility. She tells me how refreshing it felt coming in on Day Eleven. "It's great to know that you'll be doing something different," she says. "And have the guarantee that lessons won't be disturbed on other days."