A pigeon fancier came in to talk to an English group at The Bourne community school in West Sussex last term. He told pupils all about the birds'
important role in wartime - as message-bearers. He showed them how the military men tied messages to the birds legs just as he and his pigeon club colleagues use them for racing. Then he explained the mechanics of racing birds from all parts of England (and the continent) back to their lofts in West Sussex.
His talk inspired tasks that engaged the children and transcended English: there was plenty of history because of the wartime connections - it was studying the Battle of Hastings that inspired the pigeon talk - plus maths, as pupils calculated race times, acounting for time differences.
Planned cross-curricular projects are not common in secondary schools.
Bourne is one of four West Sussex schools that last year pioneered this innovative approach to the lower secondary curriculum. It is called design for learning, and focuses on transferable skills and the application of knowledge rather than its acquisition.
"I was hearing from teachers, and children, that neither group seemed satisfied with KS3 as it was," says Dame Sheila Wallis, former head of Davison high school in Worthing and the consultant leading the group. There was a need, she concluded, to move away from a prescriptive, knowledge-based structure, to something more creative.
Bourne's project theme, which ran throughout the year, was "Have I Got News for You!" and brought together history, with on-the-spot reporting from the Battle of Hastings; French, for a transmanche view of 1066 , and English, which explored reporting and storytelling, with the aid of a professional storyteller. The children made a video diary of the year, plus a breakfast TV-style programme, with interviews, magazine items and weather forecasts, including specially composed jingles.
The way secondary schools are organised, with timetables and autonomous departments, has always made it difficult to make such cross- curricular projects work. This can be solved, says Dame Sheila, by putting schools in groups, helping them to learn from and encourage each other, with supportive leadership from outside.
The four schools were selected by West Sussex and called a learning cell.
"A cell is organic," says Dame Sheila. "It can clone, divide, multiply."
Each school nominated a project manager to work with her. "We wanted to get the learning out of boxes and get children to apply their knowledge and practise transferable skills," she says.
Margaret Eva, Bourne's head, is convinced that the project contributed to a significant improvement in the school's GCSE results. "We have inspirational teachers here," she says. "And this gave them something new.
It was energising, invigorating, helping them to feel good about their school and helping children to achieve."
That theme of renewal and enthusiasm runs through each of the four schools.
At Littlehampton community, where they planned and ran a charity fundraiser called Loadsamoney, the design for learning co-ordinator, Jess Cresswell, says: "Everyone was fired up. It gave teachers the opportunity work outside their curriculum area, and they thought it was fantastic."
Each school took its project on board in a way that suited its needs and style. Littlehampton concentrated the work into an exciting week, with teachers involved outside their own specialisms. In other schools, the emphasis was on common planning and links between subjects. So Chatsmore, a Catholic high school, heavily modified its timetable for a term and Bourne built "Have I got News For You" into the existing timetable for the year.
("We wanted staff to experience working together over an extended period," says Margaret Eva.) Always, and it was crucial, was the leadership of Dame Sheila. "It's easier for me to say things than the head sometimes," she says. Her unbounded enthusiasm quickly won over doubters - and there were some, in every school, worried about breaking out of a proven structure - and kept everyone moving forward. "You couldn't be in the room with the teachers and not see how even the sceptical ones who had almost been coerced into taking part ended up completely changing the way they thought about their jobs," she says. The project has brought benefits affecting primary-secondary transfer and pupil motivation. "One school's attendance went up 4 per cent in one year."
It's important too, she feels, that specialist schools shouldn't just be demonstrating good practice in their specialism at key stage 4.
An important element of design for learning is staff development. It has opened up new management and teaching opportunities. Rachael Barnes, a newly qualified teacher at Bourne found herself at the centre of the planning. "It enabled me to meet other members of staff, from other departments and broaden my understanding of their work," she says.
Jeff Lord, head of secondary school improvement in West Sussex, sees the project as part of the authority's drive to encourage schools to think about the nature of teaching and learning. "A lot of the curriculum has been very traditional - academic in the older sense - and there's been a need to encourage more innovation."
Innovation@wallispartnership.co.uk. Tel: 01903 882171.Royal Pigeon Racing Association: www.rpra.org
WHEN A PIGEON WAS AWARDED THE VC
The message-bearing capability of the homing pigeon has been known since ancient times - the Romans used pigeons to carry back the results of long distance chariot races, and Genghis Khan had a relay of pigeon posts across Asia and Eastern Europe.
Their first serious use in war came in the Franco Prussian War of 1870 when pigeons were used to carry dispatches in the Siege of Paris.
In the First World War, both sides used pigeons - our side had the British Army Pigeon Service, and the Germans actually had photo-reconnaissance pigeons with little cameras strapped to their bodies. They continued to be used in the Second World War. The French used them in Vietnam in the 1950s.
Thirty-two military pigeons have won the PDSA's "Dickin Medal" for gallantry, commonly known as "The Animals' VC".