"THE AIM of schools should be to give students the experiences they need to become useful members of society," says Alan Roach, head of the federation of Chalvedon school and sixth-form college and Barstable school. "The curriculum as it stands does not do that. It is not fit for purpose."
These are tough words, and very much part of the vision for our schools that Prime Minister Gordon Brown would like to create. Clearly, Mr Roach knows what he's talking about since the federation has just won a prestigious award for putting enterprise and leadership at the heart of its curriculum.
The schools, which between them have more than 2,000 pupils, lie on the fringe of the Thames estuary, just outside Basildon in Essex. The area is an unemployment blackspot with a large Traveller population. A quarter of pupils receive free school meals.
"Here, we have to find ways of educating children who might be excluded by other schools, of keeping them on a learning pathway to ensure they stay on board. One of the ways of doing this is to show them that what they are learning is useful," says Mr Roach.
The federation does this in two ways. It has forged excellent relationships with local employers, to give students meaningful vocational experiences and to bring business expertise into the classroom. It has also adopted a radical approach to teaching by adapting the curriculum to make it more relevant for its pupils.
The result is the Go4it award from Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI), the body set up to improve links between the education and business worlds.
The award, piloted this year and fronted by Sir Digby Jones, HTI's president, recognises schools in which innovative teaching fosters enterprise, creativity and risk- taking among pupils. It is part of the drive to encourage schools to produce students who are capable of becoming business leaders and skilled employees. This is a highly topical concern in the light of Mr Brown's priority to address the skills gap in school-leavers and boost business enterprise, in line with the recent Leitch report.
Mr Roach believes that the problem is not schools but the curriculum. "The damage is done by packaging things into subjects, and cutting them off from each other. The subject-based curriculum is so academic that what is learnt is unlikely to be used in later life," he says.
The schools are working with Mick Waters, director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, looking at ways that "enterprise experiences" could replace the subject-based curriculum at key stage 3. From September, the federation will group KS3 learning under six headings" personal enterprise, social enterprise, financial enterprise, commercial enterprise, eco enterprise and creative enterprise.
The Second World War, for example, will be covered as a social enterprise project, involving the residents of the senior citizens' home opposite Chalvedon. Pupils will be expected to visit and interview residents about the war and prepare a presentation or a play about it that would be evaluated by the elderly people. Thus, the social enterprise making contact with the elderly will contain history and literacy learning.
Mr Roach acknowledges that the topic-based approach must not weaken the teaching of core skills. "Maths and literacy are involved in all of the enterprise programmes," he says.
Chris Jones, one of the federation's vice-principals, says: "The concepts (of teaching by topic) were also a challenge for teachers at first. It was hard breaking out of received structures. They used to say, 'We can't do that it's not geography or maths.' But we have seen how much more we can achieve by putting things into context."
The theme of personal initiative is revisited at the end of KS3, when all Year 9 pupils take the six-week Understanding Enterprise programme, aimed at developing independence in preparation for KS4.
Students are asked to design something to benefit a particular group of people, with the help of mentors from the local business community. "Business leaders work with the pupils, which creates a very adult feel to the whole experience," says vice-principal Caroline Pardey. "I go in and find they are having a board meeting in a corner, or they will come to me and suggest ways of taking the programme in a new direction."
That adult feel is perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of the schools. A purposeful buzz can be heard about the place, students move calmly between lessons. Traditional brick corridors open on to open-plan classrooms, where students can sit in fours around circular, office-type tables or at computer screens. Wall-to-wall carpet adds to the corporate feel.
Mr Roach believes the same approach is valid for the more and less able. All the federation's pupils take vocational courses, and many also take part in leadership programmes on offer for Years 10 and 11.
Accelerated learning allows some pupils to take GCSEs a year early so they can already be working towards their next qualification when they reach school leaving age, providing an incentive to stay on.
Michael Rowley, a Year 11 pupil, took five GCSEs last year and is now taking several more as well as beginning his A-levels. He is a high flyer, but has chosen to stay on at the federation. He says he has the liberty of choice here that other schools might not offer.