HEY are trying to change
the world at St Aidan's Church of England Academy in Darlington,
County Durham, where the school operates in one of the most
deprived wards in the country. It is a tall order, the assistant
head, Stephanie Francom, says, but radical changes to the school
day are proving to be one step on the long journey.
The secondary school,
which has about 700 pupils, has endured hard times in the past, and
was in special measures before converting to academy status in
2007. Students enter Year 7 (age 11 to 12) with below-average
attainment, and many have poor literacy skills. Fewer than five per
cent of their parents stayed on in education; there is a lack of
reading, motivation, and aspiration at home.
St Aidan's moved into a
brand new building in 2009, when it shed its former name and past
history as Eastbourne School. OFSTED judged it in January 2013 to
be a school requiring improvement in all areas, but commended
leaders and managers for what had been achieved since the previous
inspection. A new principal, Catherine McCoy, has been in place
IT WAS Ms Francom's
initiative to reduce the number of periods in a day from six to
three, in September last year. Dividing the school day into two or
three long lessons, instead of the average six, is a pedagogic
idea. The argument is that it allows greater concentration on a
subject, and reduced disturbance. But, so far, fewer than 20
schools around the country have put it into practice.
Ms Francom believed that
the change might underpin the academy's Progress, Independent
Learning, and Active Learning Programme (making children into
independent learners ranks high on the school's list of aims). At
St Aidan's, before a child asks the teacher for the answer, the
mantra of "Three before me" requires them first to ask a friend,
second to look it up in a book, or third to just sit and think how
they could solve it themselves.
"Our children aren't very
resilient, and that's what we're trying to get into them: that they
can be resilient, and they can learn," Ms Francom says. "We know
we're in for the long haul, but that's how we plan to raise
standards in the school over a five-year stretch. Because if you
can get them into Key Stage 4, they should be a dream to teach, and
should get all sorts of qualifications, because they've got the
learning to do it. That's what we're aiming for."
CLOSE observation of
lessons throughout the school highlighted the problems that
resulted from a six-period day. "It was clear that children were
sometimes being left behind, and that they'd then wait a week for
another lesson on that topic," Ms Francom says. "If they didn't
pick up the thread where they left off, there was a gap.
"So we decided to go for
the 110-minute approach; so that children have time to digest what
they're doing, have far more time to be creative, learn in
different ways, and can be engaged on more exciting tasks."
Now, after the daily
"family time" and worship, the students go straight into period one
at 9 a.m. Break follows, then period two, and then lunch. From
Monday to Thursday, the afternoon is made up of one period of 100
minutes, apart from Friday, when there is an early finish to the
school day, and the 50-minute afternoon session means that students
can leave at 2.35 p.m.
session is a round-up and reflection on the week for the students,
who fill in their logs, and identify what they need to improve and
aim for in order to start afresh on Monday.
THE ideology is perfect,
and they're "getting there", but, in practice, it is a tough job,
Ms Francom says. Staff in the humanities department, and those who
were teaching practical subjects welcomed the proposed changes;
staff in the maths department were the most apprehensive, but, when
the changes were reviewed after a year, no one wanted to go back to
the old system.
"We all do slightly
different things, but we chunk our lessons into learning zones, and
try to do five or six different activities during the session," Ms
For those starting in
Year 7, it is more like the primary-school day. Also more familiar
is the fewer number of teachers they will encounter in a single
day. "The fewer adults you have in your life when you're learning,
the better you will do," she suggests.
All movement around the
school takes place in the children's unstructured time of break or
lunch; so students now get to lessons on time, she says. "We've
worked well on that, and we're not tardy. People start their
lessons on time, and get the full 110 minutes. And there's no time
to be naughty in the corridors between lessons, because that time
is your time.
"Sport also benefits from
having break or lunch on either side. It now easily fits the
government requirements, and there have been dramatic improvements
in what can be achieved in the time. A 50-minute lesson could end
up being 35, because they had to get changed. You'd always have
children coming late from PE to the next lesson."
FOR the staff, their
non-contact period is now long enough to achieve something. "Fifty
minutes used to become 30 by the time you'd settled. Now you have a
big chunk of time, and, with break or lunch tagged on as well, it
can be more than two hours of time to really get things done. We're
finding we are much more effective."
The quality of lesson
planning has also improved, because of - and not in spite of - the
more onerous nature of the task. "You have to think more," Ms
Francom says. "You can't have children for 110 minutes and just
Students have been
generally positive about the timetable change, although it was
least welcomed, at first, by Years 10 and 11 (aged 14 to 16), who
had had the longest experience of the six-period day. "That was the
biggest battle. The Eights adapted very well, and the Sevens of
course didn't know anything else. None of us question it now: it's
routine for staff and students."
How do the students fare
in longer sessions of the subjects they most dislike? "The 110-
minutes lessons might have marginalised the naughties a little bit.
If you're prone to be disruptive, then it's a long time to be
disruptive," Ms Francom acknowledges.
"But lessons aren't
boring, because the teacher can afford to be more creative. We've
invested heavily in technology, particularly iPads, which people
can book out; the students really enjoy that. We've bought a green
screen, too; so they do French lessons while walking down the
Champs-Elysées, for example, and we have a lot of learning that
involves filming and role-play and talking."
The school operates on a
two-week timetable, with a strong emphasis on maths and English,
the two things identified as most needing improvement. For the
lower school, the two weeks are very much a mirror image of each
other; options for the older students in the higher Key Stages make
timetabling a little more complex, but Ms Francom is satisfied that
no groups have a bad week.
A full data analysis will show what impact the change is having
on standards. "In truth, it shouldn't really impact until it's been
in place for five years and the children have had it all the time,"
Ms Francom concludes. "But if we can make small gains, we'll be