At Callander primary school, teachers and support for learning assistants were meeting en masse for the first time as part of an innovative approach to MEd study, when headteacher Ann Gevese decided to drop in. As she opened the staffroom door, she stopped in her tracks. "It was just wonderful to see this spin-off from the project. They were totally involved, talking together as they had never had the chance before."
The teachers and SLAs at Callander primary, who normally have separate breaks to provide complete cover for the 290 children at the school and nursery, which also has an extended learning support unit, were holding this discussion as part of a Stirling University MEd module. In an unusual departure, the research was taking place in the school, with nine of the 12 teachers encouraged to participate.
The module topic - the integration of special needs in mainstream schools - lent itself to in-house study, and the university sent a lecturer to Callander one afternoon a week after school, removing the need for the students to travel to the university's Airthrey campus.
Sheila Dixon, a learning support teacher at the school, said: "We didn't have to come out again at night and travel. So taking on this module was not as daunting a commitment as it might otherwise have been."
The project came about as a result of a conversation between three teachers of mainstream classes who wanted to "do something in learning support" so that they had a greater understanding of the children in the ELS unit set up in the school in 1990. Accompanied by support for learning assistants, the ELS children integrate into mainstream classes 80 per cent of the time.
Staff wrote to the local authority explaining their interest and offering suggestions as to how they could pursue their goal. However, doing an MEd at Stirling usually involves a major commitment of time and finance: students are required to attend the university two evenings a week and to study two modules per semester at a cost of Pounds 170 a module.
Stirling Council, which is implementing a "Breaking Down The Barriers" policy offering children an alternative to special schools, realised that here was an opportunity to carry out useful research as well as a chance to smooth the way for teachers wanting to do further study. So the school and council decided to share the cost. The research work took place during personal activity time, and the tutor came to the students, not vice versa. Everybody was happy.
Ann Genese would recommend other schools to take up similar projects. There are obvious benefits for the teachers, children and school if the staff manages to find a way to marry their experience in the classroom with academic rigour. Staff acquire a greater insight into how to deal with ELS children and greater confidence in what they do.
Mrs Genese says: "Teachers can be afraid having an ELS child plus their support for learning assistant in the class and they can be reticent to seek help. The study has demystified it for them."
The module has also given the teachers confidence in their ability to study. Mrs Genese hopes that some of the staff will now take the nine remaining modules necessary to complete the MEd.
The staff found the study time of around four hours a week from January to May reasonable. Mrs Dixon even managed to do a Certificate in Special Educational Needs from Strathclyde University and St Andrew's College at the same time. She found advantages in both forms of study: she enjoyed the mutual support involved in the module at school, but also welcomed the fact that the certificate removed the need to consult, allowing her to work at her own speed.
Mrs Dixon believes that the school would undoubtedly benefit from the module. "Teaching is quite a lonely job. The research made us voice what we're doing and thinking. Teachers don't always want to flag it up when they're having problems, because it seems negative."
The main conclusion of the report, which is likely to be published next year, was that integration is working well. There are so few hiccups that some parents of mainstream children were unaware there was an ELS unit before being interviewed for the project. Mainstream children also gain from integration with ELS pupils, the report concludes.
Julie Allan, lecturer in special needs at Stirling, is now working to develop more work-based learning approaches in schools and other institutions. The cost of the Callander project compared favourably with in-service training schemes, and the level of achievement was high. The staff, motivated by the relevance of the subject to their jobs, inspired each other to work hard.
"Certainly it was demanding for them on top of the pressures teachers face," Dr Allan says. "They seemed to want to push themselves much further than I would have imagined. The quality of their research was impressive."