Ready, aim and fire away for Challenge Week
The blue flashing light swirled into the car park and two policemen burst into the school. "We've just had a call to report a man with a gun on your playing field." It was just a week after the Raoul Moat affair. Our receptionist reacted in the well-trained, professional, experienced mode that is her hallmark. She burst out laughing.
"That'll be Mr Woodason, the history teacher," she said. "He's always up to tricks like that." And she was right. Mr Woodason was spending two days with a group of students recreating a First World War trench. They started it last year; it now zig-zags across the corner of the field, deep enough for a man to stand in, complete with fire-steps and duckboards, but unfortunately no rats. To ensure authenticity, tin hats and wooden rifles had been issued.
It was all part of our annual Challenge Week, which takes us up to the end of term. Year 10 are on work experience, Year 13 are still hungover from the post-exam parties, and the rest of the school goes out and about on activities that bear more resemblance to education than the diet of revision-guide carbohydrate that swells their bellies for much of the rest of the year.
This year's transport arrangements included 12 minibuses, a fleet of coaches, two planes, two ferries, Eurostar and two narrowboats. Students journeyed by bicycle, sailing dinghy, kayak and motocross bike. They climbed rock faces, learnt to surf, to cook French pastries and stodgy English puddings. There was even a performance of Glee.
More than 30 staff took residentials. Some were old favourites such as Paris via Disneyland and the Eiffel Tower. Others were new trips this year, such as the trip to Krakow and Auschwitz. It is not difficult to see the big learning that went on there, but we sometimes underestimate just how new these experiences are for some children.
Here is a conversation from the trip that went to Holland: "We're going to Holland, aren't we, Sir?"
"That's right, Sam."
"Is that the same as the Neverlands?"
"So will we see Peter Pan?"
"Not in Amsterdam."
"We're staying in Amsterdam?"
"Wow. That's where the hunchback lives!"
That trip coincided with the return of the Holland team from the World Cup. Our group joined the other half-million orange bedecked supporters surging through the centre of Amsterdam. Never mentioned in the risk assessment, but who's going to miss out on an opportunity to create lasting memories like that?
New Labour started its period in office with the mantra of standards not structures. There is good empirical evidence for this. International studies tell the same story: that it is not class size or the degree of independence or the quality of buildings or grammar or technical or Bash Street schools that make a difference. It is the quality of teaching.
There are schools that mistake quantity for quality of teaching. Consequently, their new timetable starts three weeks before the end of term in July. They do this to get an early start on the new year's curriculum, maximise teaching time and so raise standards.
We continue to end our year with Challenge Week for the very same reason. Few kids can see far enough ahead to grasp the benefits of slogging through coursework for the benefit of their future career. They need a reason to buy into school. Taking part in exciting activities, which offer them success in a new field and raises their self-esteem, does just that.
They also see staff in a new light and build relationships of a depth and quality that is rarely possible in a classroom. It is always wonderful to hear the staff talk with such pride of what the youngsters in their groups achieved. Some kids who had never sailed before coped with winds that were over force five. Others who had never gone higher than a sofa abseiled off cliffs on Dartmoor.
Another spoke with pride of the reaction of the Australian couple who found themselves to be the only people not from our school on the entire floor of a hostel in Prague. "You should have seen their faces at the start of the week. And at the end they came up and thanked the kids for being so brilliant."
The constant pursuit of an extra mark in a module retake to get an A* instead of an A, the following to the letter of the latest scheme of work, the assessment forofbetween learning, Assessing Pupils' Progress, academies schmademies ... it all misses the point.
Create the time for teachers and students to talk and listen to one another, and build meaningful relationships. Find opportunities for young people to do things they have never done before, to learn things about themselves they did not know and discover skills and interests that will last them for life. Release teachers to inspire kids. We manage it for one week during Challenge Week. We just need to crack it for the rest of the year as well.
Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.