Hemmed in by a timetable geared to the national curriculum, a Suffolk school decided to embark on a more flexible approach. Martin Whittaker reports
In the art department at Samuel Ward upper school and technology college in Haverhill, Suffolk, a 10ft tall classical-style sculpture of Socrates is taking shape. Year 9 pupils come in at the end of the school day and at weekends to work on this piece of art. And when it is finally cast in white concrete the finished figure will take pride of place in front of the school.
In many ways the sculpture symbolises the opportunities this 13 to 18 comprehensive school gives its pupils. By changing the school day to allow a more flexible curriculum, its teachers have been given breathing space - and pupils can now enjoy a range of extra-curricular activities and vocational options.
The new timetable means the head of art and design, Neil Williams, can teach Y11 for a whole day each week. He says it has opened up his subject and given pupils the chance to produce works of art that, like Socrates, are created for public display rather than just for exam grades.
"It allows you to do a lot of other things that you couldn't do within the constraints of a normal curriculum," he says. "And it allows you to teach in-depth skills in a more concentrated way than you could do in a 50-minute lesson."
Samuel Ward upper has 730 children on roll and 5 per cent are eligible for free school meals. The school was built 26 years ago to accommodate Haverhill's growing London overspill population. Today it takes a mix of students from middle-class areas as well as nearby council estates, and student attainment on entry is below average.
Its GCSEGNVQ results show a steady, though fluctuating, improvement. In 1996, 38 per cent of pupils gained five or more grades A* to C. Last year the figure was 53 per cent, level with the average for England but still below that for Suffolk education authority.
The school began the move to a more flexible approach four years ago, with the realisation that the traditional curriculum was not meeting the needs of many of its pupils.
"You say to a kid 'you're very good with your hands, you ought to be a mechanical engineer. But you can't do that: it's not in the national curriculum'," says head Howard Lay.
"The structure of the education system prohibits and inhibits individual development. So we developed a much more flexible curriculum to increase the options and enable kids to meet their learning plans.
"That meant working with local colleges and other providers to give the kind of educational resources and skills and input that we couldn't."
But a huge stumbling block was the structure of the school day. "You have 30 periods a week, six periods a day, bells going every period. It doesn't fit that sort of curriculum."
The school set about making the day more efficient, starting and finishing earlier and staggering lunch breaks. Lessons now finish at 2.40pm, giving time for weekly staff meetings and extra-curricular activities. Two days a week, 150 students from Y10 and 11 are bussed 16 miles to take national vocational qualifications at West Suffolk college. And on a Friday everyone goes home early.
The practicalities were a headache, says Cathy Tooze, the deputy head. "We had to sort out when school buses come and go, we had to sort out the kitchens so they were putting on food at different times. There was a lot of organisation.
"Unfortunately these were all the things that were driving the curriculum.
And it's the total opposite of what should happen. The curriculum should be driving the way the school operates."
The school is keen to try to overcome the academic-vocational divide. Every pupil, able or otherwise, can opt into vocational qualifications.
The extra period 7 at the end of the school day offers opportunities for a wealth of activities across every faculty, as well as revision classes, a chance to study extra languages or take an additional science. It can also be employed to challenge more able children with extension work.
Whereas the school used to send out routine heads' letters, now it sends out a full-colour newsletter, designed by students using professional layout software. And they have produced the school prospectus on CD-Rom for incoming Year 9s.
Some students are working with professional web designers on the school's website. Others are involved in landscape gardening and are offering their burgeoning statue-making skills to local businesses.
Howard Lay says pupils now have a greater voice. "It didn't start with 'we want pupils to become more involved'," he says. "It started with, 'we want pupils to have personalised learning'. And traditional school structures don't allow for personalised learning."
Teachers who were at Samuel Ward upper before the changes say that behaviour has improved and pupils are now much more focused. They say that the extra period 7 helps them to give more time to individuals. And the school says it has no staff recruitment and retention problems.
"It doesn't feel like work," says Mr Williams. "We have staff working weekends and in the holidays and we're not being paid for it. It's just a natural extension of what we're doing."
Helen Jones, the head of food technology, said: "I think it's definitely easier. It's a shorter day, but we always stay for lesson 7 whether we have students or not. Because we know we have that extra lesson, it gives the students time to catch up."
Name: Samuel Ward upper school and technology college
School type: mixed 13-18 comprehensive.
Proportion of children eligible for free school meals: 5 per cent
Improved results: From 38 per cent of pupils gaining five or more grades A* to C GCSEs in 1996, to 53 per cent last year.