Stage, not age, is key to better learning, specialist schools told

23rd November 2007 at 00:00
Secondary teachers are being encouraged to rethink their approach to suit more pupils more of the time. David Marley previews the annual conference of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.Radical changes to usual teaching procedures, including grouping children by ability instead of age, are needed to improve standards, according to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, one of the country's biggest education organisations.

Teachers need to abandon rigid timetables and league table "quick fixes", the trust said. Instead, schools should introduce "stage not age" classes of pupils from different year groups and devote full days to the teaching of single subjects.

Other innovations could involve pupils observing teachers, participating in teacher interviews and playing a central role in designing the curriculum.

Kai Vacher, the trust's head of innovation and personalising learning, said: "You expect the medical profession to make breakthroughs, but in education there has been a culture of compliance. Now is the time for school leaders to take responsibility for changing things."

The trust, which counts 85 per cent of secondary schools as members, will use its annual conference in Birmingham next week to encourage them to rethink their approach to teaching.

Mr Vacher, who is organising the conference programme for more than 2,000 teachers, said personalised learning for pupils would not work if teachers only "tinkered" with the curriculum.

"With the introduction of the national curriculum came a culture of compliance and boxes to tick," said Mr Vacher. "Over the past four or five years a culture of creativity has been emerging and that is what we need to encourage."

The overall theme of the conference is sustainability. This will include a focus on the green agenda, with schools showing how they recycle materials and use alternative energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines.

On a wider scale, however, Mr Vacher believes that fundamental changes to teaching will lead to sustainable improvements in standards.

As reported in The TES this year, the trust has run sessions that encourage schools to focus on a small number of CD borderline pupils to achieve a rapid improvement in the percentage of children who achieve five good GCSEs.

Mr Vacher endorsed this approach, saying it was important for schools to get "quick wins" because of the pressure on them. But he added: "School improvement is more than just about improving test scores. That is important in the short term, but in the long term it has to be about more than that. It is about engaging pupils."

Elizabeth Reid, chief executive of the trust, said children were used to acquiring information quickly through the internet, and the curriculum ought to reflect that.

"If we are not careful, learning could look cumbersome and slow," she said. "Many schools are moving away from the idea that each cohort moves through the system at the same pace."

Professor David Hargreaves, the former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and an associate director of the trust, has called for the national testing regime to be scrapped. In a pamphlet distributed to schools last week he said pressure over the tests was leading some to focus on short-term measures to boost results.

But Ms Reid said schools could be innovative within the present system. "If teachers feel under pressure because of tests, that is not necessary," she said. "That sense of pressure can be managed so that people take it in their stride."

The trust's annual conference is one of the biggest education events of the year, with more than 1,000 schools represented. It will feature dozens of schools leading seminars. Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, and Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector, will address the delegates.

The size of the conference reflects the trust's status as a big player in education. It runs a wide range of courses at which school leaders and subject teachers can share ideas.

The trust's size has led to criticism. Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT, said it was not held properly to account.

MPs are investigating its activities. Barry Sheerman, chair of the Commons Children, Schools and Families select committee, said that while the trust was doing good work, it needed to be accountable to taxpayers.

All together now

While most 14-year-olds are preparing for their key stage 3 tests, pupils at Serlby Park School in Bircotes, near Doncaster, have their eyes on a bigger prize, writes David Marley.

Since the beginning of this term, Year 9 pupils have joined classes with Year 10s to study for GCSEs. As well as learning some subjects in classes with pupils of their own age, the Year 9s take two GCSEs in the mixed age-group lessons, which they finish in one year.

From next year, pupils in Years 9-11 will study together, all taking two GCSE options a year. The timetable has also been organised so that certain GCSE subjects are repeated in the same day.

"Brain research says that is the best way," said David Harris, the school's principal. "They do a double period in the morning, followed by a single in the afternoon."

Mr Harris will present a workshop on this unusual approach at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference next week.

"Kids often leave school at 16 before getting their rewards for studying," he said. "Getting GCSE results earlier helps engage children earlier. They've been really up for it."

The mixed-age classes are one of many innovations taking place at the 3-18 school, which opened three years ago after an infant, junior and secondary school decided to merge.

"We did it because the transition between schools was standing in the way of kids progressing," said Mr Harris.

Now, Year 7 pupils are taught by a primary-trained teacher for the first two hours of everyday. As well as doing regular subjects, they are taught a "competency curriculum", which includes teamwork and creativity skills. This continues for three hours a week in Year 8.

Mixed-age classes have also been introduced lower down the school, with Year 3 and Year 4 pupils. And Year 8s are used to help teach literacy to younger children.

"We try different approaches each year," Mr Harris said. "We don't have any definite answers about the best way to do things, but experimenting is raising important questions.

"Everything in our schools should be up for a rethink."

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