A recipe for success?

There is an alternative to the regimentation of the national curriculum that promotes independent th

It was designed to make teaching balanced and consistent, so that every child left school having experienced the same opportunities and chances to succeed. But somewhere along the way it all went awry for the national curriculum and the children it was supposed to reach.

Frameworks intended to guide teachers on method and content became, in the 21 years since its launch, the rope which tied their hands, making learning over-prescriptive, lacking in creativity, and for the 30,000 or so pupils who leave school every year without any qualifications, irrelevant and disengaging.

Ten years ago, RSA, an independent think tank set up in 1754 to promote the arts, commerce and manufactures, identified the need for a more practical curriculum combining academic, vocational and personal skills in its report Redefining Work. The study acknowledged changing workplace practices, an end to the concept of a career for life and the need for workers to become life-long learners who continuously update their skills.

It published a list of five key competences - skills or abilities - that pupils should acquire at school. Its findings drew enthusiasm from schools. "Straight away we had dozens of offers from schools wanting to pilot this new way of teaching, even though we hadn't yet prepared anything," says Lesley James, the RSA's head of education.

The competences, which now form the bedrock of its Opening Minds (OM) curriculum, are learning to learn, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information.

"They might seem straightforward, but teachers found it quite difficult to devise ways of teaching them," James says. "The only way to develop this style of learning was to practise it in the classroom. It was no longer a case of standing in front of the class and talking at pupils."

Individual schools tailor Opening Minds to meet their own requirements, but broadly speaking the teaching of different subjects is integrated into units or modules, where the competences are developed through the exploration of common themes which tie subjects in together. These encourage independent thinking, the use of initiative and teamwork.

Some of the 180 schools using the programme have readjusted their timetables to make lessons longer - up to three hours in duration - to give the most able students enough time to research a subject adequately and to allow the less able the time to grasp what they are learning.

In September, a brand new school will open in Tipton, West Midlands, using the OM philosophy.

Being taught by fewer teachers also makes the transition from primary to secondary school less daunting, and has removed the need for pupils to wander from one classroom to another every 40 minutes or so, leaving more time for learning.

Bemrose Community School, in inner city Derby, where less than one in three pupils achieved five A-C grade GCSEs including English and maths, introduced OM for half of its Year 7 pupils two years ago, and monitored attainment against a control group of pupils following the traditional curriculum.

Teachers merged English, history, geography, religious studies, personal, health and social education (PHSE) and citizenship teaching into a single curriculum, with other subjects taught separately. Lessons were planned collectively by subject specialists around a series of themes, such as identity and footprints.

Joanne Ward, the headteacher, says the outcome was significant. "Over the year, we found far fewer referrals for bad behaviour among the group doing OM, and there was better engagement and attitudes to learning. These pupils have just finished Year 8 and over the past year have been following a normal curriculum, but the impact of OM continues to be evident. We tested them at the end of this year using SATs-style English tests and found that 46 per cent of those who did OM had made significant progress in English compared with 28 per cent of those in the control group.

"We believe this is because we have given them the skills and tools to help them to learn and engage better, even when they reverted to a traditional timetable."

One of the pioneers of OM was St John's School and Community College, in Marlborough, Wiltshire, where the national curriculum is effectively suspended for Year 7 and 8. Headteacher Patrick Hazlewood describes the national curriculum as a relic, which took schools back to the 1950s rather than anticipating what life might be like in the 21st century.

St John's, which draws pupils from a wide range of rural social backgrounds, was one of the pioneers of OM when it was formally launched in 2001, with a pilot group of 87 Year 7 pupils originally trialling the scheme.

All pupils in Years 7 and 8 now follow the OM model, with six-week long units of themed work, before reverting back to a traditional timetable for key stage 4 and GCSEs. Any national curriculum material not covered in the first two years is completed by the end of Year 9, to fulfil statutory requirements.

"There is an erroneous baseline assumption by teachers that young people know how to learn, when in reality they don't," Hazelwood says.

"Unless young people feel confident, capable and engaged in their learning they are not going to succeed."

Similarly to Bemrose, the impact of OM continues to be felt long after students stop doing it. When the 2001 pilot group did their GCSEs two years' ago, 80 per cent gained five or more top grade GCSEs, compared with 65 per cent of the control group.

"OM has been a very successful journey for us. We have a school of happy, motivated pupils who are engaged and willing to learn," Hazlewood adds.

"Group activities in the classroom have helped social cohesion, as pupils learn outside their friendship groups and those students who start off as less gregarious develop a confidence of their own. Pupils appreciate the value of their classmates' contributions."

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of RSA, says: "Pupils don't need to be taught how to draw a graph in maths, science and geography separately. They need to learn this once, but how to adapt it to different situations and see its generic value. This is how Opening Minds works."

He said the scheme is providing the workplace with young people who are knowledgeable, motivated and know how to use their initiative.

"Good schools are those where children learn how to get on with others, to manage their lives and to become active citizens. Creativity, imagination and communication skills should be valued as highly as being able to write an essay," he says.

Dorothy Lepkowska is an education correspondent

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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Puffins in peril

Britain’s best-loved seabird is vulnerable to global extinction.

The boatmen helped us scramble ashore and soon there were 50 people wandering on an uninhab­ited slab of sea-battered dolerite called Staple Island. It is one of the National Trust-owned Farne Islands in Northumberland and among England’s most spectacular wildlife locations. There are 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds here and they were everywhere: at our feet, overhead, across every rock face. The stench of guano was overwhelming.

While the birds seemed to be boundless, the human beings converged on the grassy knoll where the local star attraction resides. It’s the creature that adorns the boat company’s publicity and is emblazoned on the National Trust’s website for the island, the bird that possesses what the poet Norman MacCaig called the “mad, clever clown’s beak”: the pint-sized, parrot-faced puffin.

The British love for this creature is so intense that it is, in essence, the robin redbreast of the sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies around our coast are tourist attractions. Just across the water, along the shore from Staple Island, is the town of Amble, which holds an annual festival devoted to the puffin. From Lundy in Devon and Skomer in Pembrokeshire to the Isle of May off the Fife coast, or Fair Isle in the Shetlands, trips to puffin colonies are frequent, sometimes daily, events.

“Every tourist shop on these islands sells puffin merchandise – knitwear patterns, tumblers, carvings, coasters, cuddly toys, clothes and, of course, puffin hats,” Helen Moncrieff, the area manager in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told me.

While the love affair is unquestionable, what seems in doubt is our ability to help the bird now that it is in trouble. Fair Isle once supported a puffin colony of 20,000 birds. In less than three decades, that number has halved. Similar declines have been reported at Britain’s most important puffin site on St Kilda, Scotland, where millions are said to have bred. Now there are fewer than 130,000 pairs, half the total recorded as recently as the 1970s.

The national picture is alarming but the news from elsewhere is even worse. Continental Europe holds more than 90 per cent – five million pairs – of the global total of Atlantic puffins but they are shared primarily between three countries: Denmark (the Faroe Islands), Iceland and Norway. Across this subarctic region, losses have been estimated at 33 per cent since 1979, when monitoring began. But the most striking figure comes from a colony on Røst, Norway, where there has been a fall over this period from nearly 1.5 million pairs to 285,000.

The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland hold a substantial proportion of the country’s puffins. Since 2005, breeding success there has been almost nil, and a similar failure has recurred on the Faroe Islands for more than a decade. In both places, where hunting puffins was once a staple of cultural life, catchers today have initiated a self-imposed moratorium.

Puffins are long-lived species and a life­span of between 20 and 30 years is not unusual, yet Euan Dunn, principal marine adviser to the RSPB, explains the implications of persistent breeding failure. “Puffins on Shetland or the Westmans may go on attempting to breed for years, even decades, but eventually all those old adult birds will die off and, if they haven’t reproduced, then the numbers will start to plunge.”

BirdLife International, a conservation network that classifies the status of birds worldwide, has reached the same conclusion. It judges that the Atlantic puffin is likely to decline by between 50 and 79 per cent by 2065. The nation’s most beloved seabird has been declared a species that is vulnerable to global extinction.

To unpick the story of puffin losses, marine ecologists have examined the bird’s oceanic ecosystem and looked particularly at changes in the status of a cold-water zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus. This seemingly insignificant, shrimp-like organism plays a crucial role in North Atlantic biodiversity and has experienced a huge decline as sea temperatures have risen steadily since the 1980s. While the decline of the finmarchicus coincided with swelling numbers of a close relative, this other zooplankton species is less abundant and nutritious.

As the finmarchicus has suffered, so, too, has one of its main predators, the lesser sand eel. And it is this formerly superabundant fish that is the staple food of puffins in many areas of the Atlantic. At the root of the disruption to marine life are the hydra-headed effects of climate change.

Though no one disputes that an important shift is under way in the sea areas of northern Britain and beyond, not everyone agrees that the present puffin situation is a crisis. A leading British expert, Mike Harris, thinks it is premature to designate the bird an endangered species. There are still millions of puffins and, he says, “We need numbers to plummet before we even start to assume that things are terminal.”

Similarly, Bergur Olsen, one of the foremost biologists studying puffins in the Faroe Islands, believes that the talk of extinction is over the top. “The food situation may change and puffins may well adapt to new prey, and then their numbers will stabilise and perhaps increase,” he says.

***

On Staple Island, the extinction designation does appear bizarre. The Farne Island puffin population has increased by 8 per cent since 2008 and there are now 40,000 pairs. This success mirrors a wider stability among puffin colonies of the North and Irish Seas. The distinction in feeding ecology which may explain the birds’ varying fortunes is that, in the southern parts of the range, puffins can prey on sprats when sand eels are scarce. Sprats appear to have suffered none of the disruption that assails the other fish.

But Dunn says it is important to look at the whole picture. “It’s fantastic that puffins are doing well in places like the Farnes, but remember: Britain holds less than 10 per cent of the world total. Also, the declines that have beset puffins in Shetland and St Kilda are even worse for other seabirds.”

The numbers of a silver-winged gull called the kittiwake have fallen by 90 per cent in Shetland and St Kilda since 2000 and by 80 per cent in the Orkneys in just ten years. Shetland’s guillemot numbers have also halved, and the shag, a relative of the cormorant, has experienced falls of over 80 per cent on many islands since the 1970s – 98 per cent, on Foula. Most troubling is the fate of the Arctic skua, which feeds mainly on fish it steals from other seabirds and is reliant on their successes. Its declines are so severe that Dunn fears its eventual loss as a breeding species in Britain.

While there is disagreement about what to call the puffin predicament, there is unanimity on one issue: much of the data that informs the discussion in Britain is out of date. All of these seabirds, which are of global importance, have been monitored decade by decade since the 1970s. Yet the most recent big audit of our cliffs and offshore islands was concluded in 2000. The full census data is now 16 years old. The organisation that underwrites this work is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; it is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has suffered deep budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. There is no certainty that another comprehensive census will be mounted any time soon.

“Much is made on wildlife television of how special these islands are for wildlife and how much we care about it,” Dunn says. “In the case of our seabirds, one of those claims is indisputably true. Britain holds populations of some species that are of worldwide significance. But if we lack even basic information on those birds and how they’re faring, especially at a time when our seas are in such flux, what message does that send about how much this country cares? And how can we ever act effectively?”

The plight of the puffin is shedding light on the fortunes of our marine wildlife generally and the shifting condition of our oceans as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels. Now, puffin politics is also starting to show
this government’s indifference to nature.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue