Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Knowsley "Experiment"

This article from 'The Independent' has lead to an outbreak of mirth amongst Knowsley teachers, either that or the resignation letter is in the post.

No more School as council opens 'Learning Centres'

By Richard Garner, Education Editor Published: 14 May 2007

In the words of rock legend Alice Cooper's most famous song, "school's out forever".

Knowsley Council in Merseyside, which - for years - has languished near or at the bottom of exam league tables, has abolished the use of the word to describe secondary education in the borough.

It is taking the dramatic step of closing all of its eleven existing secondary schools by 2009. As part of a £150m government-backed rebuilding programme, they will reopen as seven state-of-the-art, round-the-clock, learning centres with the aid of Microsoft - which has already developed links with one school in the borough, Bowring.

The style of learning will be completely different. The new centres will open from 7am until 10pm in both term-time and what used to be known as the school holidays. At weekends, they will open from 9am to 8pm.

Youngsters will not be taught in formal classes, nor will they stick to a rigid timetable; instead they will work online at their own speeds on programmes that are tailor-made to match their interests.

Children will be able to study haircare, beauty therapy, leisure and tourism, and engineering as well as the more traditional academic subjects.

They will be given their day's assignments in groups of 120 in the morning before dispersing to internet cafe-style zones in the learning centres to carry them out.
The 21,000 youngsters of secondary education age in Knowsley will also be able to access their learning programmes from home.

Madeleine Cotson, the headteacher of Bowring, said: "Provided they can show they have developed their learning, there is no reason why they couldn't do some of their learning from home."

The youngsters may find themselves working beside adults - possibly even their parents - who can enlist for courses to update their skills. That kind of arrangement has already worked well for Bowring, which has been running healthy-eating lessons.

"Let's stop right now building new old schools," said Nick Page, who is in charge of transforming children's services in Knowsley. "We're building for the next 25 to 50 years and 25 years is a hell of a long period if we get it wrong."

Figures show that only 19 per cent of youngsters in Knowsley obtained five A* to C grade passes at GCSE in 1995 compared with 43 per cent in the rest of the country. The figure went up to up to 48 per cent last year but that is still 10 per centage points behind the national average.

"The lack of progress, catastrophically high levels of pupil absenteeism, stubbornly high levels of youth unemployment and the rapidly changing nature of the labour market drew a political response both locally and nationally," says a council document outlining the reasons for the changes.

Ministers say the experiment - which forms part of the first tranche of the Government's ambitious £2.4bn programme to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in the country by 2020 - is the most radical of all the bids submitted by local authorities.

Although it has not embraced sponsorship, Knowsley has acknowledged the need for private sector involvement in the running of schools - with Microsoft, RM (a supplier of information and communications technology to schools) and Jaguar (the local car plant) all backing the scheme.

The teachers' unions are unlikely to oppose the plan as - unlike the academies programme - the shake-up does not hand control of the institutions to the private sector.

The philosophy behind the shake-up, as spelt out in the council document, is "to establish a culture in which it is understood that 'these children can' instead of 'these children can't'," it says. "Too many in secondary schooling expected little or nothing of local children and this had to be addressed."

At Bowring, the "can do" approach is already emphasised through encouraging the teaching of skills - such as problem solving and creative thinking - which will be valued by employer.

After all, Madeleine Cotson argues, an employer might be impressed by the traditional academic qualifications such as GCSE's and A-levels but would need to know whether a potential applicant for a job can get on with people.
"We're looking at ways of measuring these skills and actively finding a way of assessing these qualities," she said. "We believe they're just as important - in fact more important - than the academic skills because we're preparing people for life outside school."

At present, the timetable for 11 and 12-year-olds at the school has been changed to allow youngsters to follow problem-solving projects through. They can spend as much as two hours on a topic - such as how to drop an egg without breaking it - rather than just stick to a rigid timetable of fifty minutes per lesson.

The Knowsley Experiment has attracted interest from other councils in the UK as well as from further afield, including Tasmania and the US.

OK - words fail me, if ever this was an example of 'spin' this is it. For 'rigid timetable' and 'experiment' please read children taught by teaching assistants and scrapping academic subjects for vocational education.

There's also that marvellous quote, "Too many in secondary schooling expected little or nothing of local children and this had to be addressed." = blame the teachers, they're useless.

The National Union of Teachers is calling for no redundancies and a committment that qualified teachers will be employed in the new 'Learning Centres'.

Posting from the BBC

Previous blog on Knowsley

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