The key to good partnerships between schools and colleges is "really good communication". Without it, even long-established links will not give pupils maximum benefit, say teachers and lecturers in a pilot project run by Scotland's Colleges.
Over the past year, the schools-college partnership project has looked at ways of "joining up the learning", through a series of events based in colleges working collaboratively with partner schools (TESS, September 18).
Staff have considered how, within the framework of A Curriculum for Excellence, they could provide a more coherent learning experience for students, while pupil focus groups have looked at their perceptions of the connections between college and school-based learning.
Adam Smith College in Fife already had meetings with headteachers and rigorous self-evaluation, said Fraser Durie, director of educational developments, at last week's Scottish Learning Festival. "But we didn't have pupils' views."
Pupils coming up to college would be screened by the school, and an application form sent to college staff. There would be joint interviews and selection, and a transition form sent by the school, though this was a Fife form and "not quite fit for purpose", he said.
College courses were given equal status in the subject columns from which pupils chose, and the college timetable would start in June when the school timetable changed, with two hours a week for Skills for Work in college, or another location, and a third hour in school.
"Timetabling caused a headache at first," said Mr Durie. "The third hour delivery was an issue."
Initially, schools would ask for work from the college and use a teacher who was free. There would be a "career" slot in the timetable but it needed contextualisation, he said, to match curricular areas. A pupil studying hairdressing at college could, for example, look at colour in the school artroom in that context.
It was important, he added, to have a department in school responsible for Skills for Work, and to share experiences between school and college at an early stage, even have employer input to "add to the mix".
A joint CPD event was set up for Adam Smith, Carnegie and Elmswood colleges, who all used different models, and staff from local schools. Like boys and girls at the school dance, "the schools all sat in one corner, the colleges in another," said Mr Durie. But by the end, the understanding of each other's programmes was transformed.
The before and after evaluations showed that 25 per cent of teachers said they had good knowledge of college programmes at the start of the day; by the end this had risen to 64 per cent. At the start, 22 per cent saw extensive opportunities for partnership, but that rose to 50 per cent. Eighty per cent of the staff found the joint CPD good or excellent, and there was "lots of follow-up", said Mr Durie, with teachers making arrangements, for example, to meet with lecturers.
The focus groups for pupils revealed that "the overwhelming majority . really enjoyed college". The pupils came from three schools and identified the development of communication skills more than numeracy in college courses. They saw less connection with the school curriculum, and felt that teachers at school didn't know how they performed at college.
They also felt they were making good progress in their employability skills, though some were unsure of the definition. Half the pupils said college did not help with school subjects, but two-thirds said it did help them to do better at school.
Connections need to be made with specific subject areas in school, said Mr Durie. This would be in keeping with ACfE or with Building the Curriculum 4's focus on skills.
Now, there will be wider CPD for staff and lecturers, more focus groups with pupils and a look at the broader CfE view, he said. Above all, they will continue with an "honest and open review".
Year on year, Adam Smith College's partnership with schools is getting better, said Mr Durie. The 2008-09 review of Skills for Work showed achievement rates up on the previous year, and that was related in most cases to attendance rates.
A report on school-college partnerships will appear shortly on the Scotland's Colleges website
College courses are a common choice for pupils at Buckhaven High in Fife, often as important or more important than other subjects, said Karen Small, principal teacher of guidance.
Not everyone who chooses college is allowed to go, however; the pupils have to apply and be interviewed. But it is a "huge choice" for them and being involved with college is important.
When a pupil focus group was asked if the college experience helped them in school, quite a few said "absolutely"; they were bringing the numeracy, literacy and communications they were learning at college back to school, though teachers questioned whether the pupils really understood the terms.
"We had a school programme and college programme running. We thought it was fantastic," said Ms Small, "but the kids were saying, `no, the staff are not aware what's going on.'"
The school had senior managers walking about, going to college and having monthly meetings. That was invaluable, she said, from planning to curriculum to behaviour.
But it was important for teachers to go out to college or accommodate lecturers coming to them.
"Finding time to go out to college or vice-versa is something that needs planning, and support from senior managers to prioritise the project," she said.
"Perhaps originally it wasn't the best teachers in school doing it. It needs smart timetabling, so when one group is out at college, the others are all together so you are able to work effectively with them. You need the SMT on board, so that it goes into the timetable first."