Another education is possible

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English teacher Paul Vernell and maths teacher Chris Carter explain how the Alternative Futures curriculum group at their 11 to 18 mixed comprehensive on the edge of Bristol is putting social justice issues at the forefront of curriculum change

The testing regime in schools is breaking down. Before the summer break SATs papers were lost or badly marked; pupils were absenting themselves from the tests and head teachers were demanding an end to these wasteful and useless exams. One parent from Sunderland, truck driver Stuart McAnaney, has two sons: James, 11, and nine year old Matthew, at St Anne's RC Primary School. He said, "I think it is absolutely disgraceful that this has happened. When James was sitting his SATs he was in a terrible state because he was so stressed. I think they should be scrapped altogether."

From this month a new secondary curriculum has been introduced which encourages schools to put the creativity and fun back into learning. Some in government seem to have recognised that the teaching by numbers approach to learning doesn't work for all children.

However, the pressure of league tables will force many school management teams to play only lip service to the new rhetoric. Teachers will be forced to continue teaching for the tests as accountability mechanisms such as performance management and lesson observations are used to enforce compliance.

This tension between creativity and the current testing regime can be exploited. Staff at Filton High School, South Gloucestershire, have begun to offer a glimpse of another type of school where learning is more engaging and relevant. We have started to develop a collective approach to curriculum design that engages pupils by dealing with relevant social justice issues and offers them a real audience for their ideas.

Since 2005 both teaching and non-teaching staff have formed a curriculum group called Alternative Futures. We wanted pupils to begin to act in a more critical way. Meeting after school, between 15 and 35 staff regularly attend and plan two-week themed cross-curricular learning projects around current issues. All departments have been represented. Laura Storey, an English teacher and South Gloucestershire NUT equal opportunities officer, says, "The cross-curricular nature of the fortnight enables our students to see the links between their lessons in a way that makes their learning both fun and relevant. Perhaps as important, it also enables teachers to work collectively. Many staff feel that we are beginning finally to control the content of the curriculum."

Radical thinking

Notwithstanding the new changes in the secondary curriculum, as it stands the school curriculum is geared towards preparing young people for career paths and to promote "an efficient and flexible labour market". What radical teachers have to ask themselves is, how can we promote radical thinking in our pupils?

With the rise in anti-immigrant racism and the success of the British National Party (BNP), this year staff decided to tackle the issue of cultural diversity, identity and racism. The school has increasing numbers of parents from Portugal and Eastern Europe. Bristol itself is a major centre of Polish migration. The council has estimated that between 15,000 and possibly 25,000 Polish workers have found employment in the city in the last two years. In last year's council elections the BNP stood in a neighbouring ward to the school on an anti-migrant ticket and, with little canvassing, got 400 votes.

Therefore in the maths department they created a resource called "The Human Race - the Migrant Species". This allowed pupils to examine the history of migration not just of peoples throughout time but of how mathematical concepts travel from one culture to another and become assimilated into our thinking.

They then went on to ask the pupils to examine two statements: "Too many immigrants are coming into this country" and "Our country cannot afford to help immigrants".

Pupils were then able to use data to help them critically examine contentious issues based upon facts and not preconceived notions.

As Year 9 pupil Louis said, "I always thought that there were lots of immigrants coming to this country, but I see that was wrong." Pupils were able to calculate that the difference immigrants make to our population is 0.03 percent. But unless we are able to develop critical faculties within our young people they will always be at the mercy of the misinformation deliberately fed to them by the political right who own the media.

This work was complemented by the science department who worked on deconstructing the concept of "race" as a non-scientific term by exploring the idea of genetic variation.

The English department took an empathetic approach to migration. Using photographs taken by photographer Guy Smallman, pupils explored the journey of a Polish migrant who is shown to be living in appalling conditions in a wood outside a small English town. Information about how immigration benefits society and the reasons why people change country was fed into groups who then began to try to create the "story" of the man in the photographs.

The next stage was to give the groups information about shortages of workers in key areas in Bristol such as hospitals and schools. The pupils began to come up with solutions to staff shortages, as well as identifying any barriers that a migrant might have to taking up employment. Finally they had to write an autobiography as if they were the man in the photograph.

As with the other examples from last year's project, an attempt has been made to embed learning in real, often controversial, issues. However, as this is a type of "offline" simulated reproduction of reality, a bridge is being built between everyday issues and more abstract concepts such as justice or equality.

This process allows pupils an opportunity to reflect and offers them the option of repositioning themselves to work out their own values and beliefs. During this year's project on racism one Year 9 pupil, Tasha, commented, "I liked learning about other people. I didn't like Polish people before - they're foreign. But now I know they're not trying to take over. I like the work we've done in English because writing about someone's life makes you realise how hard life is for immigrants. They don't just get everything they want, like benefits and a house, like we think they do."

To make projects more real we move out of the four walls of the classroom and bring in people involved in the struggles we are exploring, to talk and work with students. Last year the school looked at climate change and had an expert witnesses' day. One of these was Elaine Graham Leigh who represented the Campaign Against Climate Change.

Learning also takes place offsite. During the Climate Change project in 2007 Year 9 pupils were offered a choice of trips: to learn how to measure a community's carbon footprint; to work with community artists to make fashion items out of "rubbish"; to cook in Bristol's top organic restaurant.

This year pupils went out and asked questions of the public about living in a multicultural society, and some of the responses shocked the students.

We also decided to work with Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR). Martin Smith and Weyman Bennett led workshops on music and migration. On the last day LMHR put on a concert for all the school's pupils with Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. and Bashy.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has been very supportive. This year acting general secretary Christine Blower attended the last day of the project. She told staff that she was working with LMHR to see how a website could be developed so that anti-racist teaching resources such as our own could be shared across schools.

Since the late 1970s education unions have been squeezed out of education policy development and shoe-horned in to concerning themselves with pay and conditions issues. Nevertheless, the successful ballot over the NUT's political fund earlier in the year showed that many teachers believe that the union has to engage with broader political issues such as racism and fascism.

This concern with broader political issues is reflected during the themed learning projects. There is a real buzz among a wider layer of staff about social justice issues. Twenty five staff turned up to an after school meeting of the Alternative Futures group to hear Martin Smith talk about racism and migration. The discussion focused on how to expose the BNP and the relationship between multiculturalism and anti-racism. During the Climate Change project in 2007 discussion took place about individual and social responses to increasing levels of carbon dioxide.

Anna Brooman, who is in her second year of teaching, was a key organiser of this year's event: "As a new teacher, working on these projects has opened my eyes to the wider political agenda behind education and has also led me to get involved in my union. Earlier this year I represented the school NUT group at the lobby of parliament. I also spoke about our work at the Education for Liberation conference in London in June. It has been a fast and very enjoyable learning curve."

Outside of the school we have begun to tap into new networks such as the Global Education Network which is exploring ways of introducing "global" issues into the curriculum. We were able to explain how our model of curriculum change offers a coherent method to enable this. We have been invited to lead a session at the Climate Change and Development conference for educators in October. Not surprisingly, other schools are signing up to the Alternative Futures vision of education.

The "common sense" of government approaches to teaching and learning then is in contradiction with what many teachers feel they should be doing. One London teacher put this well. "In my school I have to train staff in how to prepare a lesson for Ofsted. After I have done this I then suggest what they could do on a daily basis. Needless to say, the two are not the same." Alternative Futures is situated within this political contradiction.

There are also plans for a radical education conference on Alternative Futures next year sponsored by several university education departments. Educators are beginning to want concrete solutions to the present ideological and political crisis in education. The practical initiatives we have outlined begin to pose questions about the struggle for control within the system and offer a glimpse of a different kind of education based on the needs and interests of teachers and students.