Uckfield is a small market town in rural Wealden, East Sussex and Uckfield Community Technology College is the only secondary school in the town. We are much larger than other comprehensive schools and have a large sixth form. The College intake comes from approximately 250 sq miles embracing small villages with equally small primary school: seven primaries with less than 100 students. Around 50% of our students travel to school on public transport, hired buses or by car. The number of students from minority ethnic backgrounds is about average for the LEA but significantly below the national average. The ability of students transferring to the College varies year on year however, an analysis shows they represent a broadly average national profile. Free School Meals have a low take up, approximately 5%. The take up of Educational Maintenance Awards is higher than might be expected at 15% of the Sixth Form. The level of special educational needs is above the county average, which is in turn above the national average. Inspectors at our recent OfSTED inspection in September 2006 agreed with the College’s own evaluation that ‘Uckfield is an outstanding school, strong in all areas with many exemplary features’.
Given the College’s commitment to exploring and developing strategies to promote success and achievement, the student’s comments at the start of this article are not surprising. They reflect our commitment to developing a variety of approaches to learning and teaching in order to benefit all students. A number of Government initiatives point to the need for a new approach to the education of young people. ‘Every Child Matters’ indicates the need for a holistic approach that goes beyond the acquisition of knowledge and skills. The personalising agenda prompts the need to recognise that each young person is unique and worthy of a person-centred approach to his or her education.
The Self Managed Learning approach is based on students working in learning groups of six with an adult as a learning group adviser. The students write a learning agreement specifying what they want to work on including goals and means to achieve these. Behind this approach is our intention that students see learning as a natural process that satisfies their curiosity and enables them to accomplish the things they want to do rather than it being an imposed and passive process. Each young person is different with differing learning needs and learning preferences. Educational provision has to respond to these differences and not assume a one-size-fits-all model.
Each student has freedom to raise whatever they wish in the group and to create a learning agreement around their own specific needs.
The learning group is formed of six students and one or more adults as learning group advisers. We have had the support of a team from the University of Sussex and the South Downs Learning Centre, led by Professor Ian Cunningham, to support us in creating and running the groups.
Ian Cunningham’s team worked with our Assistant Directors of Year (ADoYs). These fulltime non-teaching colleagues work alongside each of our Directors of Year using and developing strategies to manage behaviour for learning; promoting positive approaches to relationships and resolving conflicts as well as pursuing attendance and other pastoral issues. This role enables our Directors of Year to focus on supporting learning and achievement across the year groups. Ian Cunningham initially ran a workshop with our ADoYs introducing them to the approach. Each ADoY was then attached to one of Ian’s team in an apprentice role so that they could develop practical experience of running groups prior to leading groups independently.
Each learning group met for about two hours every three weeks during the spring and summer terms. We started with three groups of gifted and talented students in Year 10 (they are now Year 12) and followed the next year with groups from Years 8, 9 and 10. For these latter groups we identified students who would benefit from additional support. For instance, the Year 8 group was made up of boys who were in and out of short term exclusions and who were identified as having behavioural issues in class.
Currently we are running groups assisted by the external team for newly appointed colleagues as well as other groups lead by our ADoYs. And, we intend to both sustain and extend the use of such groups in future years.
Since the activities of each group are decided by the group they vary greatly. A Year 9 group last year for example had one student who wanted to be an author. The group invited in the children’s author, Jane Hissey, to question about how she became an author and what her work entailed. Although only one student was interested in a career in this area others in the group were able to support him by helping him come up with relevant questions.
As a result, others in the group learned from this experience about ways that they can explore options for themselves. For example one girl in the Year 9 group aspired to be a netball coach. She had the support of the group to devise questions to ask her netball coach about how she got into coaching and what she needed to study at university.
These are examples of the group balancing independent learning with interdependent learning. Personalising cannot mean purely individualising. People have to work in real organisations with other people. This responds to employers complaints that many students coming out of education are poor at team working, self discipline and self motivation. Leadbeater, 2005, comments: ‘The ability to fit into a timetable made sense for a world in which employers wanted workers to fit into a neat division of labour. In future, however, even work in large organisations will require skills of self-organisation and self-scheduling.’ The College is highly regarded for its exemplary Enterprise Education and the learning groups provide ideal environments for young people to learn these capabilities.
Hence as well as learning what they set out in their goals (content) they also learn from the process of learning even more important abilities. This is especially so when they are able to become more active learners through the process.
This was exemplified in the Year 8 group when, in an evaluation session with students and learning group advisers, senior colleagues in the College were intrigued as to why most of the Year 8 boys had markedly improved their behaviour. The learning group adviser commented that he had not asked them to change their behaviour. They set all their own goals and most of them had started to see a future for themselves that would require them to learn. For instance, a number were interested in becoming apprentices in motor vehicle maintenance, plumbing and electrical work. By visiting a further education college and a local garage they understood the need for NVQs and what this might demand of them in the short term. This meant that they decided for themselves to take relevant lessons more seriously.
The way the group worked also provided a forum for them to take collective responsibility for behavioural issues. For instance this group, like all others, set its own ground rules. At the same meeting they came up with a ‘three strikes and you are out’ rule. One boy did collect three strikes for breaking the agreed ground rules. His peers agreed that he left – and he did (for that meeting). Members of the group were all on the daily behaviour report the College uses at the College with identified students at the first meeting. They handed their report cards to the learning group advisers to mark. The learning group advisers insisted that they were not going to score them – this would be the collective decision of the group.
The examples of the student sent out and the report forms helped the group to see that they need to take collective responsibility and to learn teamwork and the ability to make judgements about each other. Initially this was a bit of a shock but they quickly learned to work in this way and the number of report forms reduced over time.
Given that the peer group is the biggest influence on teenagers what we see in learning groups is the chance to mobilise the peer group for good rather than ill. We know that teachers and parents can tell teenagers not to smoke or take drugs and yet many do – through peer group influence. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend this does not happen. But what we can do is create positive environments so that peer group pressure works in positive ways. The Year 8 student who was sent out of the group was shocked at getting this feedback from his peers – it’s something he had never had before as normally teachers were the ones who sent him out of the class. In subsequent group meetings he was the one who most diligently policed the ‘three strikes and you are out’ rule.
The follow-up to the Self Managed Learning programme has shown the value of it. For instance some of the students from the Year 10 groups produced a list highlighting the benefits of the use of the learning group as follows:
Teachers in Year 12 have commented that students from these learning groups have shown greater awareness of their future options and this had led to them being able to do their UCAS applications more effectively.
Working in this way forms a part of our on going debate about how the curriculum – its content and process – as well as the role of ‘teaching’ and ‘non teaching’ colleagues support and challenge students.
Leadbeater, 2005 comments: ‘Children have a huge appetite and capacity to learn, yet all do not learn as enthusiastically or effectively at school.’
Our College logo, Realising Potential, reflects our fundamental focus of both recognising and liberating this potential and making real the aspirations, talents and skills of our students. Sustaining the Self Managed Learning Groups approach has implications for resources as well as basic practical considerations such as finding suitable rooms for groups to meet. Clearly however this approach benefits students hugely.
Leadbeater, C. (2005) The Shape of Things to Come, DfES Innovation Unit