A journey to excellence which has taken 15 years

Highland teachers have made "unique" progress towards A Curriculum for Excellence - but it took 15 years to get there

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Independent research shows a fundamental shift in teaching philosophies and confident school communities where children take charge of their learning and enthused teachers, released from the strictures of a rigid curriculum, exchange ideas as they pass in the corridor.

Researchers from Glasgow and Strathclyde universities, on behalf of Highland Council and the Scottish Government, evaluated 25 primaries and three secondaries between May and November 2008, all of which are part of the Highland Future Learning and Teaching (FLaT) project, which promotes formative assessment. They conclude in a draft version that "something unique has emerged within Highland Council" which goes deeper than changing practice. Teachers talk of progress in terms of children's achievements, not standard curricular markers, such as textbooks or reading levels.

There is a "strong sense" of many teachers and headteachers "understanding the shift in the power relationship between teacher and learner that lies at the heart of effective teaching". They were setting a standard for colleagues throughout Scotland: "If Curriculum for Excellence is to herald a new paradigm in pedagogical thinking and practice, the Highland model may well present an important way forward."

The researchers stress, however, that there is no "quick fix" and that the roots for what they witnessed go back many years. In 1993-94, Highland region agreed to work with Strathclyde University on a thinking and reasoning skills course with an emphasis on theory and research. The resultant module was used for continuing professional development until 2004, when Assessment is for Learning emerged to get teachers thinking about their practice.

Highland Council became a champion of formative assessment and set up a detailed CPD programme known as the Highland Journey, which resulted in "almost entirely positive feedback" from staff.

"Making thinking explicit" has "transformed" ways of learning, but is a slow process. The FLaT project shows the importance of a long-term model about which teachers are enthused; simply dispensing "tips for teachers" was not good enough.

The opportunity to compare notes with like-minded colleagues in other schools has fired teachers' enthusiasm, as well as helping children make the move from primary to secondary. Teachers believe discussion of what a theory is like in practice is "irreplaceable". They enthuse about getting chances to do so, "often through informal chat, observation and conversation in the corridor".

Highland Journey schools have made regular use of peer and self- assessment, pupil learning logs, "meaningful dialogue" - based on the belief that spoken language boosts learning - and metacognition. "Many of the young people interviewed had an impressive awareness of the process of learning and of the centrality of their role in that," the report finds. "They clearly enjoyed more participative ways of working and were less complimentary about passive approaches to learning that they had experienced."

Not all feedback was positive: some teachers were concerned about favouring achievement over attainment; new approaches could be "daunting" for experienced staff; and teachers meeting to discuss ideas did so mostly in their own time. One head said there was a long journey to make in implementing ACfE.

Learning and teaching development officer Kevin Logan stressed there remained much work to do if all schools in the region were to replicate the successes. Part two of the evaluation, to be published later this year, will look at how to do so.

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