Sole searching

29th February 2008 at 00:00
Can you imagine walking around a classroom in your socks? Or being asked to take an emotional intelligence test? David Marley meets the head who has adopted a shoes off, feelings out policy

Before taking seats, opening books or consulting lesson plans, children and staff at New Line Learning Academy in Kent all share one ritual - removing their shoes. Chris Gerry, the school's headteacher, insists that it is nothing to do with preserving the bold lime green furniture in the school's futuristic "plaza".

"It is communicating that you are entering a special place," he says. "It is to make a psychological point that we want you to behave differently here, that the normal rules don't apply."

It does not take long in his company to realise that normal rules do not apply to a great deal of his thinking.

The executive head of New Line Learning and Cornwallis academies in Maidstone, Kent, talks fervently about "life space" and "fuzzy trace" theories instead of the usual concerns about this year's league table position. (Both are something to do with how people make life choices, if I followed.)

Inside a drab 1970s school building, Chris is leading a quiet revolution in how to make education fit for the 21st century. He has sent 16 staff to Yale University to be trained as emotional intelligence coaches, at a cost of "a few thousand pounds" from the academies' annual budget of pound;15 million. He is developing a complex computer system with Microsoft that will include details from whether pupils have breakfast in the morning to how good their social skills are to generate information on the factors affecting their success.

And he believes the key to raising standards is creating a "relationship driven" school, which puts developing emotional intelligence at the centre of its mission.

The shoe-free plaza is a bold and colourful representation of Chris's vision. The reconfigured classroom for up to 90 pupils is full of sensory stimulation, with green banana-shaped lecture seats and tables shaped like helicopter blades.

"So much money is being spent on designing and building new schools, but most of them have the same conventional classrooms as the ones they are replacing," says Chris. "This way we get to test what works first."

The design of the prototype room was partly inspired by fashionable shops, such as Apple's flagship London store on Regent Street, which are much better at creating a pleasant ambience than most schools, Chris says.

This is all part of the school's ambition to stimulate children and teachers. "Both have the same problem, that they do not always like being at school," he says, half-jokingly.

Ninety per cent of school staff volunteered to take assessments to measure their emotional intelligence and each was given a report on their strengths and weaknesses.

The Ruler performance test measured the participants' abilities in recognising, understanding, labelling, expressing and regulating emotions. Scores are then reported on three levels, with staff told confidentially that they need to consider developing their skills, are competent or are high level.

From September, all newly qualified teachers starting at the academies will be given a coach to help their emotional development in the stressful early stages of their careers.

The 10-week programme is designed to help staff manage conflicts, their careers and relationships with other staff.

"It's not sitting on a sofa and telling me about your relationship with your mother," says Faye McGill, assistant head at Cornwallis Academy, who will be one of the coaches. "The sessions will be optional for experienced staff, but we hope all of them will take part."

She was one of the first teachers to be sent to Yale to be trained to become a coach, when she went to America last October. "It was exciting to go somewhere so prestigious," she says. "Now that we've been there, we can train other staff in the future. It is a different way of doing professional development, instead of traditional in-set training days."

For pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9, a specific lesson a week is dedicated to emotional intelligence. They are taught emotion adjectives such as elation and how to relate them to their own lives.

The programme was initially introduced through the English curriculum to build both emotional intelligence and vocabulary. In one lesson a week, pupils are encouraged to share experiences linked to certain emotions. They then draw comparisons to events happening in the news and to pieces of literature.

The idea has been extended to all departments in the school, with all subjects including that week's adjective in at least one lesson. In history lessons, for example, children might apply the word alienation to the treatment of the Jews during the Second World War, Chris says.

Clare Lloyd, assistant principal of both academies, says: "We are seeing significant results. Bullying incidents are down and children are getting on better with their learning."

Faye says: "The pupils in this school are often from poor backgrounds and are not socially aware. They don't always know how to behave. This is about how we can help them behave in situations that most people take for granted."

Chris wants pupils to understand themselves better and be given the chance to take decisions and become more resilient. But he is keen to stress that this is not all "liberal, let's love each other stuff".

"This goes way beyond the social and emotional aspects of learning programme and is done with a hard research edge".

Chris's desire to innovate has attracted controversy in the past. He has spoken before about modelling his school on some of the business principles of Tesco.

He sticks by that today. "Supermarkets use data to influence what they do. We want a business intelligence model that allows us to look at data in different ways and to communicate with groups of children appropriately," he says.

The school wants to develop computer systems far beyond those that plug in test results, gender and age.

"Schools think they know a lot, but there's a lot they don't know," Chris says. "The way to improve schools is to make them relationship driven. We have not designed a school around these principles before. If children are successful socially, they will learn."

One thing the school does not lack is ambition. "What we are trying to do has applications to any public sector model in the world. The search is on for what a 21st-century public institution might look like," Chris says. "We need to take the best of what's happening in the private sector and apply it to the public sector."

With shoes back on, he hurries to his office. He has to prepare for his next visitors, a delegation from Finland, the country that politicians from this country like to laud for having the best education system in the world.

But the group visiting New Line Learning Academy has heard there might be something happening in Kent worth paying attention to as well.

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