You got a glimpse of an alternative approach to education at Filton High School, an 11 to 18 mixed comprehensive on the outskirts of Bristol, last week. Every day a different year group from years 7 to 11 focused on the question: “Is another world possible?”
The idea was prompted by the outpouring of solidarity and internationalism in the wake of the tsunami disaster. Teachers decided to use their professionalism and expertise to show how their subject specialism could contribute to an understanding of the world and how to change it.
The purpose was to give our pupils a chance to act as global citizens and use their knowledge and skills to come up with their own ideas on how to make the world a safer and better place. In this way we hoped to make the curriculum more relevant and interesting at a time when schools are constrained by the national testing regime.
Each day started with a whole year assembly with a montage of video clips from the disaster. Then the head teacher led a reflective assembly. This was followed by a thinking skills activity to get children to discuss how to prioritise and think through consequences.
Pupils then went to lessons and teachers helped them understand the relevance of their subject to the issues thrown up by the disaster and to come up with ideas to sort out problems as if they were world leaders. There was a buzz of excitement around the school all week and a German teacher had only one complaint: “I wish every week could be like this.”
English teacher Laura Storey said, “Pupils were incredibly animated about the issues they felt strongly about, like poverty and how we could eradicate it.”
Special Needs teacher Pat Hennessey sold 650 Make Poverty History wristbands to staff and pupils and took photos throughout the week.
She said, “I was impressed to see how focused and motivated the pupils were in all the activities presented to them in the different subject areas. I think that they saw the whole day as very meaningful.”
It was not just the pupils who were enthused. The technician at the school, Richard, said, “Staff were working as hard as when Ofsted comes in, designing creative lessons for the children but this time teachers were happy.”
Throughout the week every subject explored issues thrown up by the disaster. Ben Houghton, a history teacher, told Socialist Worker, “The week gave me the opportunity to teach about Sri Lanka, which the History National Curriculum would not allow me to do.”
Maths teacher Chris Carter said, “Interpreting numbers and statistics is part of critical thinking and is important as they are often manipulated by politicians and the media. “Young people need to question the origins of such information and data.”
At the end of the day, instead of going to their last lesson, pupils returned to the main hall and pooled their ideas in a series of activities. This helped them come up with suggestions for making the world a better place to live in. One Year 9 pupil, Tammy, said, “Today has helped me understand how precious life is.”
Another, Tom, spoke of how “interesting and inventive” the experience was. Year 10 student Karley commented that “the teachers acted different” and hoped the school would now organise another themed learning week, this time on war.
In fact, in the pupil evaluations, war came out as the single most important issue that they thought should be the focus of another week, followed by the environment and climate change.
The school also raised £600 for the Disasters Emergency Committee after the school student council voted to have a non school uniform day on the last day and decided to double the amount pupils had to pay to not to wear school uniform.
The week showed the possibility of liberating spaces in the curriculum, a theme that will be taken up in an exciting conference on education on 5 March.
It also showed that such imaginative and effective education every week is incompatible with the restrictive national curriculum. To improve education requires challenging long working hours for teachers, shortages of resources, large classes and the whole market thrust of education policy.
Rethinking Education in the Era of Globalisation conference, Saturday 5 March, 11am-5pm, City and Islington sixth form centre, north London.
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