Rebel without a rule book

27th October 2006 at 01:00
Meet the school leader who has banned all homework and rejected the national curriculum. Andrew Mourant reports

First he swept away subject demarcation; now he's abolished heads of department. But while some are uncomfortable with it, Patrick Hazlewood won't let yesterday's hierarchies thwart his mission to improve teaching and learning at his Wiltshire comprehensive.

He has rejected the national curriculum, believing it stifles independent thought. He also made headlines as "the head who banned homework". The truth is subtler, but certainly top-down management and curricular divisions are now history at St John's, in Marlborough.

For five years a pilot group has followed the alternative curriculum, studying across the subject spectrum. "It allows continual learning, rather like a book," Dr Hazlewood says.

"If Year 7s are doing the Victorians in English, in science they might look at discoveries from that era. It's almost a topic-based approach - it works very well in primary schools."

One casualty is traditional departments and management. Dr Hazlewood's ideal - though he's aware of the constraints - is for "personalised learning" and creating environments that allow individuals to maximise their potential.

"We don't set limits," he says. "Don't assume school just happens between 9am and 3pm. It could happen any time, at any place. All teachers plan work together and every child has a mentor. From the child's perspective the curriculum becomes a coherent whole."

Staff are expected to let pupils lead lessons where appropriate. "That can be scary," he says. "You have to accept people may get it wrong."

He concedes that it's a lot for teachers to take in. "People were turning down jobs here, saying,'I don't think we can cope with the workload.' But teachers now write saying, 'We'd love to work for a school like yours.'"

Headlines about scrapping homework stemmed from Dr Hazlewood thinking aloud about its benefits. "What difference would banning it actually make?" he said. "One of the most powerful learning strategies humans have is play, and we're squashing that out of them."

When you suggest that sounds a bit Rudolf Steiner, he looks nonplussed. "It is very much Steiner, but common sense," he says. "We ought to be saying to children, 'OK, in preparation for tomorrow, what do you think you should be doing tonight?'

"Our policy is, 'This is your learning. We'll guide, help, support and advise you, but there may be 30 or 40 different ways of doing a task.They work harder at home because they want to. We had a Y7 project about Earth, where 248 out of 250 came back with lots of material. I was hugely surprised - I expected about half to do it."

Dr Hazlewood exhorts teachers to be confident in their judgment, and to take risks. "That's a huge area to overcome," he says. "Some people think, 'Great.' And off they go. Others fear getting it wrong."

The new management structure was the logical outcome. "The most important relationship is between child and teacher," he says. "If that's working - children enjoying learning, teachers enjoying teaching - hierarchies don't matter. If a group of professionals think something's a good idea, do it and move on."

Since the start of the autumn term, he has moulded a new world. There are nine directors of impact and innovation - "experienced departmental heads who know what good quality teaching is and how to measure the impact of the curriculum".

"They have to work as a team," he says. "But they're struggling with consultation because it's new. So much more is required. A big problem is time. It's early days and it's not going as smoothly as it ought to."

Meanwhile, five directors of teaching and learning are charged with "helping individual teachers raise the game". Their territory includes mentoring and coaching, and personalised learning. Phased progression leaders monitor children aged five, through primary school and then from 13 to 19.

But what about pay and incentives? Dr Hazlewood does have a structure which allows staff to progress. "In this system, while you may not get paid for doing the job, nothing stops you doing any job within it," he says.

"Teachers who have operate a truly collegiate system are worth more money.

My structure actually costs about pound;35,000 more. Hopefully, you'll get a more motivated workforce."

He says the enthusiasts outweigh those who are "concerned". "No reputation is sacred," he says. "Thirty years in the game doesn't necessarily mean you're better than someone who's been in it 10 days.

"One criticism of the alternative curriculum is that it creates arrogant children. What it actually creates is young people confident in their ability to learn."

The first pilot group at St John's sat GCSEs this summer. "Overall, our pass rate was 66 per cent five A*-C grades," he says. "But for the pilot group doing the alternative curriculum it was 68-69 per cent. They did much better in science and took it in Y10. Their combined pass rate was 80 per cent. The Y11 group who did the exam at the same time got 68 per cent - the best we'd ever done in sciences.

"They're very good at problem-solving. I think we've reached the stage where the examination no longer fits the children, so we're looking at the International Baccalaureate."

Lyn Quantick, St John's secondary strategy manager, admits the new system has caused "teething problems".

"For some, the reality of wide-open spaces can be frightening," she says.

"We want people to have more conversations but haven't given them the time.

We all like safety nets, yet they have been stripped away - not to stop people doing things, but to allow them to do things. The next steps have to come from constructive debate."

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