Freedom to learn
Some schools have been quicker than others to seize the opportunities afforded them by a more flexible Key Stage 3 curriculum. Liz Lightfoot reports on some of the models being tried, including super-learning days.
Since the revised Key Stage 3 curriculum came into effect in September 2008 most secondary schools in England have taken some advantage of the new freedoms to tailor what is offered more closely to the needs and interests of students.
Though it was early days, a survey by Ofsted last year concluded that the response of senior leaders had been positive. Where they had taken teachers with them in a whole school approach, the new curriculum was already making an impact on pupils' progress and enjoyment of lessons.
But the inspectors said some schools had moved much faster than others to dismantle rigid subject boundaries, embed personal learning and thinking skills and address the cross-curriculum dimensions defined by the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA). In January this year, Ofsted again noted a range of responses when it examined the KS3 changes as part of its report on creative approaches to learning.
The secondary schools in the survey were chosen because they had been judged good or outstanding for pupils' enjoyment of lessons and not all of them had rushed to blur subject boundaries.
Around half had opted for a relatively traditional curriculum provided through discrete subject teaching, suspended periodically for extended, cross-curricular project work. Others were developing an extended cross-curricular programme for years 7 and 8 across one, two or three terms.
The most successful schools monitored closely their cross-curricular initiatives to ensure that the distinctiveness of the individual subjects was not diminished, they added.
It is likely that a minority of schools - fewer than a third - have made dramatic changes, says Sue Kirkham, ASCL education policy specialist who was a member of the QCA board and chaired its 14-19 working group.
"My evidence is purely anecdotal but probably around a third of schools haven't made any structural changes and a third have made some changes and are thinking about making more. A smaller number have put subjects together in quite a dramatic way so you no longer recognise a traditional subject-based timetable," she says.
One of the schools involved in significant reform is Melior Community College in Scunthorpe, a challenging 11-16 comprehensive in an area of high multiple measures of deprivation. Melior has stepped up the 'super-learning days' it introduced five years ago when the normal curriculum is suspended for several days to make way for topic-based activities.
Typical days are themed around arts, enterprise, environment, drugs awareness or personal finance with outcomes such as the production of a video, a radio programme or a community project diary.
The activities have a literacy or numeracy strand, or both, and students learn differently through extended and independent study, group work and collaboration with adults other than their normal teachers. The initiative has been recognised as good practice by both the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) and the QCDA.
In addition, a visit to Sweden where students were seen working independently using their teachers and others as 'facilitators' spawned 'problem-based learning' (PBL) in Scunthorpe. A planning team, which divided into groups, was drawn from volunteer teachers at Melior and three other schools in order to develop the scheme.
It has evolved into five hours a week in which students have lessons based on the personal learning and thinking skills (PLTS) framework, with time clawed from geography, history, religious education and ICT. Knowledge content is from the new National Curriculum orders for the subjects - and others where applicable - and the skills content is PLTS plus functional skills in English, maths and ICT.
Outcomes for each activity in terms of knowledge and skills are carefully planned, annotated and then evaluated using an online assessment and recording tool.
Has it worked? Yes, says Lauretta Williams, vice principal. "We want students to have a good time at school and enjoy their learning and achievements. We want teachers to feel that they are making a difference by working differently, not even harder.
"The students now in year 8 loved their problem-based learning lessons and complain bitterly that they no longer do them. We are trying to accelerate the use of the PBL style into more lessons and plan to extend it into year 8."
Those who have followed the programme are able to work better in groups, research information effectively and make presentations more confidently than previous cohorts, she says. Another bonus has been an improvement in behaviour and attendance.
Initially, however, some staff were less than enthusiastic about having to work differently and with each other.
"For super-learning days we had to get all staff involved as it is a whole school initiative," Lauretta says. "We did it through careful design of the teaching teams to include the most enthusiastic and able to the least enthusiastic in the same team to enable sharing of good practice in terms of planning and delivering the days.
"For the PBL we started off with enthusiastic volunteers or champions and have used the enthusiasm of the PBL team to draw in other volunteers as we have enlarged the team to cover two year groups."
Schools may worry about being too radical in case it has a negative effect on Ofsted inspection but that is no longer the case, says Sue Kirkham.
"It is understandable that people fear that inspectors would not appreciate something new. However, two fairly recent Ofsted publications, Planning for Change in 2009 and Curriculum Innovation in Schools in 2008, made the general point that they are looking at the results that are produced, not telling people how to run the curriculum," she says.
Ofsted's 2009 report on how schools were preparing to implement change praised the quality of leadership and management but was critical of the lack of a whole school approach to the introduction of the PLTS, saying it was usually left to subject departments to introduce them as they saw fit. Only four schools of the 37 visited had carried out an audit of where the skills were already being taught.
One school was praised for the imaginative way it audited the skills being taught in order to identify the gaps in different subjects. The skills, such as creative thinking and working as a team, were assigned a diferent coloured wool ball.
Teachers, grouped in subjects, took the balls of wool and draped them round themselves if the skill was being taught in their lessons, then passed the ball on to the next subject using the skill. The inspectors said the criss-crossing of different coloured wool made it immediately clear which subjects taught similar skills and which skills were under-represented.
A less eye-catching audit carried out at Farlingaye High School in Woodbridge, Suffolk, canvassed the views of both staff and students. Pete Smith, the member of the leading edge team who oversees the KS3 changes, says students were very honest and perceptive about the skills they were encouraged to use.
"They felt that independent learning and creative thinking were well covered across the curriculum but that they were given less opportunity in some subjects for reflective learning or working as a team and so we have been working on that," he says. Students now chart their progress on each of the skills on the school's virtual learning environment.
Flexible Fridays and 'fast track' weeks at Leasowes Community College in Halesowen, West Midlands, have been praised by Ofsted. Fridays are organised into a five-hour continuous learning block allocated to subjects in proportion to their overall curriculum time. Year 10 students are offered week-long blocks in two subjects leading to early GCSE entry and the whole school uses longer blocks of time three times a year.
"The students want more blocks and people ask me why we don't do it every day, if it is so good," says Neil Shaw, Leasowes' vice principal who is also the West Midlands regional lead on curriculum design and innovation for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.
"Variety is the spice of life and some subjects benefit from larger blocks and some from smaller. But even just three sets of blocks is a huge planning and administrative undertaking," he says. "However, the positives of new dynamic relationships between staff and students; the power of immersive deep learning experiences; and the breaking down of traditional barriers far outweigh the problems of timetabling."
The beneficial impact of the KS3 changes has had a knock-on effect at Newport Girls' High School in Shropshire, says headteacher Edwina Gleeson. "We have completely reformed KS3 and introduced PLTS building and learning power. We have reduced KS3 to two years and our very good mathematicians take maths GCSE in year 9. All students take English language and RS at the end of year 10. It has reduced the lesson load for year 11, which we thought was an unbearable year, and created a lot of time for enrichment and bridging the divide between GCSE and A level."
The way children learn in primary schools has inspired changes at Eastbourne Technology College. Subjects have been paired and middle leaders given the flexibility to mix and match single or double lessons in a subject and run joint topics across a number of weeks.
"We are a National Challenge school and usually by now there are issues building up with year 7 in terms of behaviour," says Wayne Jones, the deputy head. "This year there are far fewer problems and the only thing that has changed is the curriculum. They are more settled this year and more prepared to co-operate. The number of times students have to be removed from lessons for misbehaviour is very significantly down."
Schools making radical changes have nothing to fear from Ofsted, he says, as long as they make the role of assessment clear and can demonstrate successful outcomes.
Liz Lightfoot is a freelance education writer.
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