There have been many calls recently for an end to the testing regime for pupils in our schools up to the age of 16. Because of this an opportunity has opened up for teacher activists to liberate spaces in the curriculum.
At Filton High School in South Gloucestershire an attempt has been made to begin to redesign the curriculum to make it more based on problem-solving and linked to changing the world.
Staff from across the teaching and non-teaching unions set up the Alternative Futures Group at the end of 2006.
This has met frequently after school over the last seven months. The group has worked on what staff feel should be the real purpose of education.
This culminated recently when 200 Year Nine students presented their solutions on solving climate change to an invited guest of local councillors and representatives.
The ideas included solar panels and wind turbines they had designed, locally sourced food they had cooked and music they had written lyrics for.
This celebration of students’ ingenuity took place after they had spent two weeks exploring the issue of climate change in all of their lessons.
Rachel Kendall, an English teacher at Filton High School and South Gloucestershire division NUT president, explained, “Workers at the school have a good record on fighting on pay and conditions.
“During the recent local elections, staff went out three nights running after school and leafleted against the fascist BNP who were standing in the area.
“So it is natural that we also should be extending our role and trying to shape the curriculum.”
During the first week students were given a choice of in-school events and trips to deepen their understanding of climate change. On the Wednesday over 100 pupils went out to seven different locations.
Some visited the award- winning Bordeaux Quay restaurant where they used locally sourced ingredients to make meals from healthy ingredients.
Lauren, a student, said, “It was interesting finding out about how the restaurant was reducing its carbon footprint. I really enjoyed making a couscous salad. We were allowed to eat it too. I’ve never had one before.”
A trip to a village saw students being taught how to measure a community’s carbon footprint.
In school there was a carousel of activities including one with local artist Ruth Ramsey who led workshops on fashion and rubbish, where students made fashion items out of used materials.
A group organised a Question Time session.
They invited an audience of around 100 people after school to question students in the roles of minister David Miliband, Rupert Murdoch and other well-known individuals.
Students started breaking down the parcelling up of knowledge that is characteristic of most learning in school so that they can be tested more readily.
Teacher Laura Storey said, “It was incredible to see how much research the students had done. Their confidence grew throughout so that they could engage and argue back.”
We also invited seven experts from organisations including The Soil Association and the Campaign against Climate Change.
Groups of students came up to them with questions they had prepared in their English lessons. They took notes to use in the groups they were working in to produce leaflets and web pages.
Lessons looked different too. Instead of teaching in their usual spaces, staff experimented.
We launched the event in the school hall and had all pupils working in groups on thinking skills activities to find out what they knew about the causes and effects of climate change.
French and German classes were grouped together and were taught by four teachers. Asked what he had enjoyed most, Liam stated, “It was great working collaboratively with our friends and that the lessons were all linked.”
In maths pupils were “unsetted” and designed a survey on public transport and recycling. They went on to the street to ask questions of the public.
Chris Carter, the head of maths, said, “We want students to have an audience and purpose for their learning. Often you feel ground down by the targets and performance management stuff and let the tests shape what you do.
“The next step is to get other schools to have a go. Perhaps next year we could get 50 or 100 schools to do the same thing at the same time and offer a real challenge to the current system.”
Jonathan Reddiford, the head of the sixth form at Nailsea School in North Somerset, agrees. He said, “In my school we have embarked on a similar project to the one at Filton. We chose the war on terror as our subject.
“It would be a step forward if more schools could push for this type of approach and teachers’ unions threw their weight behind the idea of a national fortnight of ‘curriculum’ action.”