A Northumberland comprehensive has developed a revolutionary method of teaching that fans claim is making it more influential than government.
Wendy Wallace reports
From the outside, Cramlington school - a low-rise collection of buildings set in the windy outskirts of the eponymous Northumberland new town - is unremarkable. Staff fill up the car park and students travel on foot along underpasses and walkways, some stubbing out cigarettes as they arrive. So far, so ordinary. But what is happening inside the school is being hailed by Tim Brighouse, the London schools commissioner, as having more influence on education than the Government.
Personalised learning is being heralded on the one hand as the saviour of education, and on the other as the latest addition to the Emperor's wardrobe. Cramlington is one of the few places where this still largely untested idea can be seen in progress, and reaction so far has been enthusiastic. Tim Brighouse is obviously a fan; Ofsted has praised Cramlington for its "bold and innovative focus on teaching and learning" and made it an exemplar in its latest report on ICT in schools; and teachers are arriving in droves to study at the school's training centre.
In addition, Cramlington is one of the first tranche of the Government's "leading edge" schools (successor to the beacon scheme) charged with disseminating best practice among neighbouring schools.
Radical changes at this 13-18 specialist science school began seven years ago when Derek Wise turned his attention from school improvement to transformation. Head since 1990, he had spent several years turning a sinking comprehensive, with rates of five A*-C GCSE passes below 40 per cent, into one that was on the up, with numbers and exam results rising.
After a positive Ofsted report in 1997, Mr Wise and his colleagues decided a new push was needed if they were not to start sliding again. "We were doing the ordinary things well," he says. "But we didn't want teachers to feel 'we've cracked it'."
The school decided to adopt a "learner-centred" approach, putting children rather than exam results, inspectors or the national curriculum at the top of its agenda. Now, Cramlington's senior management team has the ambitious aim of giving every student a rewarding experience - in every class. Mr Wise and his team, inspired by the accelerated learning guru Alistair Smith - with whom they work closely and have written a book about the strategy - have devised a framework that translates a jumble of pedagogical thinking into a coherent set of tools that can be applied by every teacher. The guiding principle is that lessons should cater for all learning styles.
"The danger for teachers," says Mr Wise, "is that your own learning style becomes your teaching style."
A "Cramlington cycle" lesson plan aims to meet the needs of active learners, visual learners and aural learners. It contains a recap of the previous lesson, and time for collaboration between students, for putting the learning into context and for reviewing it at the end of the session.
The cycle depends heavily on ICT, particularly the interactive whiteboards in every classroom. This "distillation of good practice", as one staff member terms it, gives teachers a clear but varied grid around which to plan. And it gives students a route map through their lessons, a consistent structure that casts children as active participants and guarantees variety. "Kids continuously get a good deal, at every lesson - and they expect it," says senior teacher John Burford. "They are at the centre of the lesson; they do the work, the thinking, the talking."
Watching a Year 9 maths lesson, taught Cramlington-style by Alastair Findlayson, the topic - speed equals distance over time - is expressed first as a formula, then as a visual proposition on the whiteboard. After some brainstorming revision, music and footage of motor racing, students have a puzzle to do - sorting disparate pieces of information so that speed, distance and time correlate. Fourteen-year-old Aimee Parker's attention is caught by the card stating that "Daniel is the fittest of the four friends", although this turns out to be a clue to the time it takes him to run to Newcastle. Students move on quickly to group work, again with a physical aspect as they sort cards in teams. "We're trying to include methods to help all students," says Mr Findlayson. "With the cards, they're doing 15 questions - without opening the book and doing 15 questions."
The lesson has an upbeat quality and, with the multimedia resources, feels more like a cinema than a traditional maths class. "They give you a chance to have your say," says Aimee. "It's better than being treated like a baby."
New members of staff get three days' induction in the methods, followed by a residential course three months later. Seven people - including three web designers - are employed in ICT support to help curriculum teams get their lessons into the format and on to the school's impressive intranet.
While some of the cycle's disciples talk about it with evangelical fervour - an impression reinforced by deputy head and chief trainer Mark Lovatt singing "Spirit in the Sky" as he scrolls through a slide show on teaching at Cramlington - it is complex and will not appeal to everybody. Aspects of the system have a rather anorak-ish quality; every lesson has to be "audited for Bloom's taxonomy of thinking", and irritating acronyms such as "Wilf" (what I'm looking for) and "Tib" (this is because) abound. The structure lends pace and clarity, but its bite-size quality seems to rule out spontaneous development in a lesson. At A-level, the cycle is elongated over more than one period to allow for "greater in-depth student contributions", says DerekWise.
Cramlington's focus on process appears to have levered up results. Last year, 73 per cent of students got five A*-C GCSEs, in a pupil population that closely represents the national ability spectrum. Parents like the educational experience on offer here - the school had 430 applications for 400 Year 9 places this autumn - although the methods are not flagged up in the school brochure. Sixty per cent of Year 11 students stay on for sixth form and, says Mr Wise, some return after they've left - on teaching practice, or for a job interview. It makes a change, he says, from the old "get away and stay away" attitude.
Teachers, too, appear to benefit from the Cramlington philosophy. In a recent National Union of Teachers survey secondary teachers cited initiative overload as one of the top five obstacles to teaching .
Cramlington's approach may provide an antidote, says Dee Palmer-Jones of Gatsby Technical Education Projects (GTEP), one of the trusts in the Sainsbury family's charitable Gatsby Foundation. "It starts from the premise: what is effective teaching and learning?" says Ms Palmer-Jones.
"Then it provides a model and a vocabulary that makes it manageable. What teachers like is its attempt to bring everything together."
And it's not just Cramlington staff who are satisfied. Every year the school, in association with GTEP, trains around 400 teachers from around the country at its purpose-built centre - business that brought in pound;150,000 last year. "Our biggest problem," says Mark Lovatt, "is that we can't meet the demand." The school's senior teachers attend international conferences and Cramlington has its own research team dedicated to developing and improving teaching practice.
The innovations at Cramlington are certainly making waves in the right ponds. "Derek Wise seems to be able to persuade people to extend their style and repertoire of teaching, which is usually difficult," says Tim Brighouse. But in the long term it is the school's determination to forge its own path that may prove more significant than its achievements in personalised learning. David Hargreaves, chair of Becta, the Government's agency for promoting ICT in schools, and a consultant at the Department for Education and Skills, believes the future belongs to locally determined reforms "in areas where the top-down, prescriptive strategies are reaching their natural limits".
Accelerated Learning: a user's guide, by Alistair Smith, Mark Lovatt and Derek Wise, is published by Network Educational Press. Tel: 01785 225515, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org