Dr Patrick Hazlewood explains how St John’s School in Marlborough, challenged an out-dated curriculum.

It is now almost three years ago that St John’s School and Community College decided to take the bold step of ‘throwing the Key Stage 3 National Curriculum out of the window’. It was certainly a project that has attracted very widespread interest both nationally and internationally. It was, however, a direction taken for simple and straightforward reasons.

Since the introduction of the National Curriculum in the late 1980s it could be argued that the English educational system and, more specifically the curriculum,had been stuck in a time warp.The politically chosen point of fixation was a model of educational experience centred on the world of work predominant in the 1960s and 1970s, in which one left school and eventually had a job for life. Indeed the political mantra, popular in the early 90s, ‘back to Basics’, only served to reinforce the view that the old ways and old days were somehow better, particularly in terms of educational rigour and outcomes. For those who occupy the sharp end of classroom delivery (teachers) and those who receive the distilled wisdom (students) the 1990s represented an era of content overload, political interference and, latterly, an all embracing drive to achieve ever higher performance tar-gets. What had clearly been forgotten by seemingly everyone with the power to influence ‘education’ was the overall experience of the child.

If one reflects on the life of the child entering Year 7 in secondary school, following the after-shock of Key Stage 2 SATs, the day begins with (say) an hour long lesson, followed by another – five in one day, twenty five in one week, probably 350 in one term. Not one teacher in the organisation has any idea exactly what the child’s experience has been. The only person who has, is the child. Little wonder then that the child experiences unplanned repeat lessons (for example graphs in Maths, Geography, Science and Languages) and, through the years, sees the same thing reappear time after time. Different guises, different narrator but nonetheless essentially the same information. The lack of continuity and coherence screams out. Most children respond accordingly with gradually declining enthusiasm through Year 7 until the Year 8 ‘dip’ arrives.

In 2000-2001 St John’s engaged the debate internally about the relevance of the curriculum and most importantly about whether we actually helped children to learn how to learn. The staff, faced with the challenge ‘what is relevant in the Year 8 curriculum, what should we keep?’ were silent. So what does a highly achieving school do next? The staff cannot work any harder to continually raise standards; the children certainly could-n’ cope with more of the same. The logical step was therefore to start again. Create a curriculum fit for learners in the 21st century, learners whose needs would be very different, who would face challenges and situations that would demand flexibility, high levels of personal confidence and above all a repertoire of skills that enabled them to face a rapidly evolving world. Most importantly the challenge was to create a curriculum that would inspire learners to love learning.

Since 1997 the RSA (The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Com-mere) had been considering the ‘World of Work in the 21st Century’ and subsequently (1999) the ‘Future of Education’. After much debate nationally the conclusion reached was that the core of any curriculum should contain five key competences:

  • Managing Information
  • Managing Situations
  • Relating to People
  • Citizenship
  • Learning to Learn

When St John’s took the final decision to implement an Alternative Curriculum in May 2001 for implementation in September 2001, a great deal needed to be accomplished in a very short period of time. Starting with a blank sheet of paper to design a ‘Curriculum for the 21st Century’ is rather daunting! We chose to pilot the curriculum with one-third of Year 7 (87 pupils) with the remainder (160) acting as a control group. With the support of the RSA, as one of its twelve national pilot schools, we deter-mined that the project would be fully evaluated by both internal and external evaluators.

The project had a number of key principles:

i. there would be no individual subjects;

ii. the curriculum would be taught in modules of six weeks duration;

iii. the content would be fully integrated; and

iv. the teaching team would ideally be 6/7teachers, no more.

The teams planned the detail of each module lesson by lesson. Every teacher in the team knew exactly what would be taught by whom (continuity and coherence) and worked to the same lesson criteria – namely every child must take responsibility for his or her own learning and very high expectations would be set at all times. All teachers use multiple intelligence, emotional intelligence and associated ‘learning to learn’ techniques through each module. In describing how the approach works it is, ideally, that the child starts on Monday lesson one and over the next six weeks it is rather like opening a book; the story (i.e. the curriculum) unfolds. The child can take the learn-in journey (story) wherever it needs to go (the teacher acts as facilitator, guide, mentor, inter-peter) in exploring the ideas involved.

One module, ‘Making the News’ starts off with the question ‘what is news?’ It unravels the concept of news (what is news to you may not be news to me!), engages time lines to examine ‘news’ through his-tory, examines specific ‘items of news’ e.g. Norman Conquest, examines castles and invasion, explores the ways in which humans communicate and completes the journey at the speed of light and ‘news’ from distant galaxies. The level of Science, English and other subjects is far beyond the artificial boundaries of the Year 7 National Curriculum. Imagine Year 7 children designing the most effective structure for a trebuchet, calculating angles of trajectory and the paths of projectiles or thinking about the universe of Stephen Hawking. Content from the Years 9, 10 and 11 Maths and Science syllabuses is the norm not the exception! (Future articles will examine module and module delivery in greater detail). However, the experience of this new curriculum was quite amazing.

Imagine teachers talking excitedly about lessons and children who don’t want to go out at break but would rather carry on working! Giving children control of the learning pathways produced some amusing anecdotes. For example, the supply teacher who set out the work on the white-board, which the class (politely) refused to do. ‘actually Miss we hadn’t planned to do that today…’! The engagement with learning began to go far beyond our expectations. Year 7 pupils producing work of a better quality than Year 11, children with significant learning difficulties confidently creating PowerPoint presentations and delivering them to adult audiences and, almost incidentally, improved academic results.

The impact on the culture of learning was remarkable. Children became actively engaged in learning because they wanted to, not because they had to. In May 2002, the need for objective data to support our wealth of interpretative data, led to the decision to examine the English and Maths elements using the optional Year 7 National Tests, with Science using Key Stage 3 Year 9 past test questions. Both pilot and control groups completed the tests. In the original planning the central parameters included the position that no child (in the pilot) must be disadvantaged academically by inclusion in the project. The results of the tests were quite a surprise. Far from simply doing ‘as well’, given that they had not followed the National Curriculum, the Pilot Groups (n = 87) out-performed the Control Groups (n = 160) significantly. In English 11.75% improved by 2 levels com-pared with performance at Key Stage 2 SATs; only 0.75% of the control achieved this standard. Similarly in Maths the average performance in the pilot was over 0.5% of a level better and in Science, on a range of tests, the pilot performed between 15% and 20% better.

Whilst achievement in standard tests was not our guiding principle (!) it was somehow reassuring that the pilot was outperforming the control groups. We had children who actively took control of their learning, had become confident and self-motivated learners, displayed an assured progression in the competences and showed resilience in test conditions. The range of indicators that the project had carefully evaluated clearly showed that abandon-met of the National Curriculum had certainly not damaged our children, quite the opposite.

On that basis the 250+ of the 2002-2003 cohort embarked on the Alternative Curriculum.The pilot went through into Year 8 and the next phase of inducting a further fifty teachers began! Needless to say it was a huge and often daunting task but we persevered and the second full Year 7 cohort began in September 2003. The pilot group by now had begun their GCSE Science courses in Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

Whilst not all things have gone smoothly there can be no doubt that this innovative approach to education in the 21st century was working. It pr ob-ably raises many more questions than it answers. This approach is not a replacement version of the National Curriculum – it is learner centred, it is organic and it is tailored to an individual school. There are serious implications of this approach for the curriculum 5-11 and 14-19. If the Key Stage 3 curriculum is disabling our learners then perhaps the curriculum spectrum each side requires careful reappraisal. If children are more responsive and proactive learners than the curriculum and educational theory has previously recognised and they raise their performance to meet very high expectations, then it is time to make significant and far reaching changes.

Dr Patrick Hazlewood has been the Headteacher at St John’s School & Community College in Marlborough (Wiltshire) since 1996. He was previously Head of Pool School & Community College in Cornwall for five years. Dr Hazlewood has a PhD in the effective management of secondary schools (Exeter University 1994) and has been involved in Curriculum Innovation since 1983, including Global Education and Science Teaching (University of York 1983-1992). He has been a Fellow of the RSA since 1994 (Opening Minds 1999 to date). (www.stjohns.wilts.sch.uk)

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, April 2004.