Ideas unlimited: boxing to bomb disposal

5th October 2007 at 01:00
Building Schools for the Future aims to break the limitations imposed by old Victorian premises by providing 21st century buildings to stimulate pioneering lessons. But innovation still frightens some local authorities, so to mark World Teacher Day, The TES looks at nine of the most inventive or unusual schools around the world. They have proved that creating an extreme school is about more than bold paint jobs, interactive whiteboards and towering glass atriums. They have their doubters but they are not afraid to take a risk. Jonathan Milne reports

Illustration by David Smith

High Tech High, San Diego,

California, United States

There is no football, cheerleading or band at High Tech High. Students at the junior high school spend their afternoons working as interns at Nasa or on their own Silicon Valley start-ups.

Carlos Gutierrez, the US Commerce Secretary, visited earlier this year to announce a new partnership between the school and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to build undersea robots.

"These students are an example of the highly skilled workers that will run our businesses in the future," Mr Gutierrez said.

With the US fighting the same battle as England to excite teenagers about the sciences, most American specialist schools cherry-pick the top 1 per cent of the tens of thousands who apply.

But High Tech High runs a blind lottery of all its applicants and gets the same brilliant outcomes. The only admission test is whether one is smart enough to apply.

Jed Wallace, High Tech High's chief operating officer, admits the school is "not big on athletics". But one biotechnology teacher had a punch-bag hanging in his classroom as he taught his pupils mostly girls to box. Another group took up golf, again as a study of physics and motion.

Mr Wallace says: "Our kids are using their own bodies as scientific laboratories."

Barnaskolinn School, Eyrarbakka and Stokkseyri, Iceland

When Iceland's first elementary school opened in 1852, split between two schoolhouses in two villages, the pupils would walk five kilometres from one classroom to another for lessons. But 20 years ago, the local Women's Association and a factory owner gave the school four big, clunky, early Victor 8086 computers and the school joined the information superhighway.

Today, the 160 pupils in the two villages might as well be in the same classroom, with a high-speed fibre-optic link allowing almost limitless video conferencing.

It was through a video-conference with Australia that teachers discovered how alike children are the world over. There had been a volcanic eruption in Iceland and major floods in southern Australia during the week of the conference. The pupils, though, were not interested in geology and climate change.

"We got two days off for the floods," said the chirpy young Aussies. "How many do you get off for an eruption?"

Banereng School, Atteridgeville, near Pretoria, South Africa

Banereng is really a large organic vegetable garden with a schoolhouse attached. The gardens teach the children about nutrition, ecology and recycling and provide veggies for school dinners.

In an impoverished black township where most of the 800 children live in squatters' camps, principal Paulina Sethole quickly found that "you cannot teach a hungry child".

So now the school is surrounded by 600 square metres of vegetable gardens, and 2,000 square metres of other plantings.

With funding tight in post-apartheid South Africa, she went further afield for support: BMW, the German car manufacturer, used Banereng to pilot its school environmental education development community gardens project.

The Japanese government built a resource centre and the school has formed partnerships with a small English public school and Nottingham University, which sends newly qualified teachers there as volunteers.

Professor Patricia Thomson, from the university's school of education, says Banereng epitomises hope in the new South Africa. "The children are safe and well cared for in a township where the daily struggles of post-apartheid life are still visible," she said.

British International School of New York,

Manhattan, New York, US

The red cardigans and grey blazers worn by the 110 pupils of this new school set them apart from the New World riff-raff in their Wall Street pinstripes.

The school teaches English spelling, English sport (including soccer) and the English national curriculum. Some teachers in England may see the curriculum as a straitjacket, but its discipline is welcomed by New York's stiff upper lipped Anglophiles.

Dubbed "Hogwarts on the Hudson", getting your two-year-old on to the roll takes more than a wave of a magic wand. Fees are $27,500 (pound;13,900) a year.

According to Andrea Greystoke, the founder and president: "Children are happiest when they know they are behaving well. American parents are looking for a school that offers structure, politeness, respect and good manners."

That, and a tolerable cup of Earl Grey.

Australian School of Mathematics and Science, Adelaide, Australia

Buried in the middle of the leafy campus of Flinders University, between the gymnasium, library, nursing college and bus park, is a state school. The Australian School of Mathematics and Science and its 270 teenage pupils blend almost invisibly into the campus, although they do tend to monopolise the snooker table in the student cafeteria.

Associate professor Jim Davies, the principal, aims to "get real" with learning. One pupil has just marketed her movie recording the biodiversity of the nearby Aldinga Scrub coastal reserve; another has returned from an expedition to the Arctic, where he analysed ice core samples.

There are no classrooms: the learning takes place in groups of between three and 90 pupils in shared "learning commons". The teachers are like actors, performing in large public spaces. More importantly, they are scientists. Professor Davies tells them that the most important part of their job is their professional development, and they work closely with university academics to extend their knowledge. Of the 26 teachers on the staff, 10 have higher degrees and eight are working towards doctorates.

Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti,

Christchurch, New Zealand

When 16-year-old Neil Robinson turned up at the reception desk of Unlimited, he had three demands. He wished to win scholarships in graphics; he wished to participate in the national rock band talent quest; and he wished to be left to himself.

Unlimited is housed in five floors of open-plan workspaces above the fashion boutiques and malls of Christchurch's central shopping district.

Pupils plan their own learning with their chosen adviser, and put it into practice. Three students run a dance party business with a tutor. One designs business logos for big corporates. The school's annual NZ$10,000 (pound;3,700) seeding fund is well invested.

Unlimited did not have a graphics teacher, but Neil Robinson was unperturbed: he would ask for help where and when he needed it. Being a night owl, he would come in late and use his electronic swipe card to let himself out. Working alone, he won New Zealand's highest graphics scholarship score. And last year his band won the school rock quest.

According to Vince Dobbs, the 330-pupil school's co-principal: "That puts in perspective the importance of the teacher compared to the power of personalised learning."

The Ron Clark Academy, Atlanta, Georgia, US

When they make a film about your life as a teacher and cast Matthew Perry from Friends in the lead role, you might be tempted to ditch the classroom and go on the after- dinner speaking circuit. But not if you are Ron Clark.

The teacher whose work with Harlem youths inspired an Emmy-nominated TV movie, The Ron Clark Story, is establishing a private school in South Atlanta in which students' fees will be subsidised by wealthy donors. That is necessary because the school's unique ambition is to take its pupils from low-income families around the world.

The school opened with 60 pupils last month and already has class trips scheduled to Washington DC, London and Paris. Japan and Argentina are next.

From museums to Broadway shows, cultural festivals to professional sporting events, the school is promising to open pupils' eyes to the rich cultures within Atlanta and around the world.

Mr Clark worked in London as a singing and dancing waiter and lived with gypsies in Transylvania before returning home to cover some classes at his mum's school.

"One thing really missing in American education is an appreciation and understanding of other people and cultures," Mr Clark said. "We're trying to build global leaders. We want our students to be leaders, not only in Atlanta but around the world."

And Matthew Perry? He was so impressed by Mr Clark that he has agreed to serve on the school's board of governors.

Neel Bagh Trust, Andhra Pradesh, India

When David Horsburgh set up Neel Bagh school in 1972, it was a mud hut in a remote rural village.

"I have started a school," he told his wife. "It has two pupils as of now."

The lanky English educationist, who sang as he walked about town, was driven as much to train teachers as he was to train children. And he was determined to do it his way: "No rules, no punishments," the former RAF officer announced.

Long before the phrase "vertical learning mentor groups" was coined, the older and younger Neel Bagh children sat outside, learning together. And twice a week, parents from the village would visit the school to learn English taught by the children.

David Horsburgh died in 1984, but his legacy lives on in two schools as well as in his pupils.

Rulang Primary School, Singapore

Singapore, says one observer, is a nation that lives in constant paranoia about being overtaken as a leader in technological innovation.

Rulang Primary is addressing that fear with a robotics centre that looks like a design studio, with brightly coloured pieces of machinery scattered all around.

Sean McDougall, London-based managing director of Stakeholder Design, watched children aged seven and eight designing a robot that would find and defuse a fictional terrorist bomb on an offshore oil refinery.

By 2020, when England aims to finish rebuilding its schools, he believes the Rulang children will have a 15-year head start in developing the key skills in technology and teamwork needed for the 21st century.

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