A2015 report from the think tank Demos concluded that some pupils feel school is just preparing them for exam success, reporting that only 33% of final year pupils state that they are happy; as opposed to 60% making the same comment when aged 14. Specifically, pupils coming to the end of their statutory education are reported to feel that there is too much focus on exams rather than preparing them for life in general.
Anyone who works in a secondary school could hardly be surprised by the findings of this research. Which schools have gained official recognition, for example from Ofsted, because their youngsters were contented, happy and delighted with their experience of school? Progressively as the years have passed, secondary schools have been judged purely on their capacity to push young people through an increasingly narrow examination based curriculum; is it, therefore, any wonder that youngsters are pretty fed up about this?
Of course it doesn’t have to be this way. We now have the most independent school system, especially in the secondary sector, this country has enjoyed for many years; certainly since the introduction of the national curriculum. School leaders should consider this research with heavy hearts and ask themselves the question, have we done enough to mitigate against the ever narrowing views coming to us from policy makers? Have we really done all we can to ensure that our young people are happy as well as successful in their time at our schools and have we also ensured that the provision we make for them takes that happiness and success into their adult lives in a sustainable way?
I believe the latter is perfectly possible and at Honywood Community Science School in Essex, where I am head, we are making considerable strides in achieving these goals. How have we done this?
Planning for growth
We began re-designing our curriculum in 2010, implementing the first iteration of a new curriculum in September 2011; those youngsters are now in Year 11. What is notably different about that curriculum compared to previous designs is its specific dual focus.
We set out to ensure that learners are both happy and successful, both during their time at the school and in the lives they will lead upon leaving us. This duality is woven into all our development planning, our designs for learning and our pedagogy and it is producing the most positive outcomes I have ever seen in my thirty years in teaching, more than thirteen of which I’ve spent leading our school.
Teachers designing learning at Honywood must do so through focusing both on subject learning and on developing learners’ attributes; we describe eight attributes in our curriculum including curiosity, attention to detail and confidence. Each of these attributes can be described using specific characteristics – curiosity, for example, considers learners’ capacity to ask good questions, their readiness to be surprised as they learn and their willingness to persist as challenge and complexity grows. Clearly these are characteristics that, when developed in our young people, will support their capacity to build a growth mind-set, something specifically mentioned in the Demos report.
In developing our model we have followed the work of Carol Dweck very closely and have used it to inform how we have re-modelled our curriculum.
As well as curriculum design changing, we have changed our pedagogy. When designing learning, our teachers must now build considered choices for learners into their design. By empowering learners through the choices they are offered, we have made them real partners in their learning design; we have also ensured that they have felt trusted to make decisions independently of the adults in their lives, and as a result they are much more mature in their approach, and much more willing to reflect on their learning. Teachers’ behaviour has changed. No longer do we create class sessions made easier to deliver through setting, where teachers spend most of their time orchestrating group learning from the front of the classroom. Learning groups are now mixed and teachers must, through the way in which they design learning sessions, ensure that learners face a range of different challenges. This means that in most sessions, teachers spend most of their time working with small groups facing similar challenge, or with individual learners. This has changed the learning climate in the school, with learners responding positively to the responsibility they have been offered. Because teachers now behave differently, they are far better equipped to analyse the learning in which our youngsters are engaged, both subject learning and developing learning attributes. Through feeding this back into the learning design process, and through offering far more individually tailored and timely guidance, the learning experience has become far more personalised and as a result school feels like a place centred around learning and learners rather than a factory simply designed to get good exam results, a good Ofsted rating and a good league table position.
A learning journey
We have developed a model for learning that supports this shift in pedagogy and encourages a more independent focus where learners can mature more quickly and take more ownership and control of their learning and their lives. It starts with ignition – teachers create challenges, resources and activities that ignite learners’ curiosity. During their first two years at the school, learners experience ten ignition days specifically designed to light up their interest in learning. Following this, increasingly lengthy study periods are designed to stretch and challenge learners – challenge is central to our curriculum model where all learners are expected to study, for example, a modern language to GCSE examination level and all study three separate sciences. At the end of each study period, learners are required to reflect – we call this showcasing.
Showcasing helps learners to claim full ownership of their learning as well as ensuring they strengthen their learning attributes. During showcasing weeks, each learner must reflect, in front of their peers, on the learning in which they have engaged during the study period. Through requiring learners to reflect on the learning process, we are able to show them how this builds their capacities well beyond the narrow confines identified in test passing. We use a simple questioning framework; where was I, where am I, where could I be? This helps learners to see their progress far more deeply than any previous test-based regime that we had used for this purpose. Showcasing builds character; if you turn up to showcase having made bad choices about engaging in your learning, the powerful feelings of failure you experience as a learner are far more authentic than any comment your teacher could make to you. In seeing others struggle, struggle is made normal and because the focus is on the process of learning and is not obsessed by the outcome, mind-sets are shifted along the lines Demos suggests are necessary if learners are to be happier in their education.
So has this worked or has our school become an environment that is cosy, nurturing and ‘soft on standards’? Since we began changing our curriculum attendance at the school has moved from an average of 94.1% to its current 95.4%; fixed-term exclusions have dropped significantly and the last time I permanently excluded a learner was February 2011 (prior to that I averaged one such sad event every year). Our current Year 11 learners are yet, of course, to sit their final exams but the data we hold on them is immensely promising. More attend after school revision clubs than any previous cohort and internal data suggests that their outcomes will be the best the school has ever seen.
Laughably, the DfE responded to the Demos report by informing us that it had allocated £5million to promote character education. The DfE needs to support school leaders who take on this challenge through valuing far more highly in its ‘league tabling’ of schools the learning attributes being developed by pupils in our schools – spending some money on high quality research that could take on this challenge would be a worthy use of taxpayers’ money. School leaders should not wait, however, for the DfE to help. I urge them to take on this challenge in their own schools and would happily meet with those interested to explain in more detail how we’ve achieved the dual success we are seeing here at Honywood.