Thursday, 10 July 2014

South Yorkshire’s flexible learning community: bringing Co-operative values to life

Above: Pupils at Sir Thomas Wharton Community College

NEC’s GCSE and A level courses are helping a comprehensive school in South Yorkshire establish itself as one of only two exam centres for private candidates in Doncaster, as well as expanding the curriculum for pupils.

Less than a week after GCSE and A level candidates at Sir Thomas Wharton Community College in South Yorkshire finished writing their exam papers, the school had its first enquiries for 2015 from private candidates wanting to sit maths and science papers. An NEC exam centre for only two years, the school is increasingly attracting private GCSE and A level candidates – those who are studying under their own steam without attending classes at a school or college – from as far away as Leeds and Sheffield. There were 15 of them this year.

Sir Thomas Wharton Community College is a 1,140-pupil comprehensive school in the small town of Edlington on the outskirts of Doncaster. It is a member of the Yorkshire and the Humber Co-operative Learning Partnership. The principle of flexibility for both pupils and the wider community led Sir Thomas Wharton Community College to consider distance learning and the National Extension College in 2008. Flexibility for the local community was behind the decision made four years later to become an exam centre for private candidates, reflecting the community-based values of the Co-operative movement.

Deputy headteacher Kevin Grum explains: ‘If an organisation’s values mean anything, you have to do something about it. Here, members of the school council – pupils aged between 11 and 19 - interview all job applicants. The pastoral curriculum, including assemblies and tutorial time, looks explicitly at our values. Ultimately, they are all about flexibility. So when our head of science agreed to take on practical assessments for private candidates studying GCSEs, for example, he did it because of the school’s values.’

Exams officer Jo Shalome says: ‘We work on a “never say no” basis when it comes to private candidates. We know that finding an exam centre isn’t easy, and we want to help people improve their qualifications in any way we can, whether they are full-time students at the school, families who are home-schooling their children or adults who want a second chance at learning. We would only turn a private candidate away if the request came just a few days before the exam date or if the subject the candidate was studying wasn’t one for which we could offer a controlled assessment.’

But it’s not just private candidates who are studying NEC courses and taking their exams at Sir Thomas Wharton Community College. The school is offering NEC courses to sixth form students as a way of offering them greater subject choice than the school would be able to offer otherwise, and to make individual timetables more flexible.

The school’s first NEC success was a student who took an AS in geography. She went on to take the A2 with the NEC in 2013, achieving a B in the exam, and is now studying nursing. ‘She wanted to focus on sciences but geography was the subject she was most passionate about,’ says Kay Henson, Head of Achievement. ‘We couldn’t find a way of fitting geography into the school timetable with biology and chemistry, so distance learning was an obvious way to go.’ Other students coming into the sixth form have followed in her footsteps and the school is now seeing them choose specialist subjects that NEC offers but which are not mainstream for schools. This year, accounting and environmental sciences have been popular.

The school’s pastoral support system works hand-in-hand with 1:1 tutoring from NEC. Every sixth-form student taking an NEC course has a 50-minute tutorial each week which includes support from a teacher who is a specialist in the curriculum area they are studying. Accountancy students, for example, are matched with a business studies teacher. Together, they look at the progress the student has made during the past week and the teacher helps them with anything they are struggling with. As some students are understandably resistant to making contact with people they do not know personally, the sixth form team also monitors whether students are having tutorials with NEC tutors and takes action if it finds they are not.

Now the school is planning to introduce flexibility in subject choice to Key Stage 4 (GCSE-level) pupils through NEC. As well as choosing a foreign language, a science and a humanities subject to fulfil the requirements of the EBacc performance measure, students also study the school’s specialism, business and enterprise studies, and choose a fifth subject. The school is considering whether NEC might offer a more efficient way to cover staff absences than employing a supply teacher in cases where the absence of permanent member of staff is known about in advance, for example maternity and paternity leave or major surgery.

Deputy Kevin Grum concludes: ‘When Sir Thomas Wharton Community College first became an academy, we were in a partnership with others schools in Doncaster. That meant we could offer students a wider subject choice at both GCSE and A level than we had been able to do before. Now we are a standalone academy. Distance learning is more important than ever in offering the flexible provision which is so central to what we stand for.’

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