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The pleasures of learning rediscovered

The Orkney islands have been praised for the enthusiasm with which they are gearing teachers up for curriculum changes, says Henry Hepburn

Orkney Islands Council has earned rich praise for an "innovative" event that brought its entire complement of teaching staff together under one roof to share ideas about A Curriculum for Excellence.

In all, 440 teachers and other classroom-based staff from 23 schools gathered at Stromness Academy over two days last week for the Orkney Learning Festival, including many who had travelled from the 10 islands with schools outwith the mainland. Experts in several educational fields took workshops and stayed in Orkney to help teachers transfer what they had learned to the classroom.

May Sweeney, national co-ordinator for ACfE, in her keynote speech, commended Orkney for employing some of the presenters to follow up what they had started by going to its schools to support them over the following two weeks: "I think that's really innovative."

Leslie Manson, Orkney's education director, explained that the festival marked only the second time that all the authority's teaching staff had come together in his eight years in the role. "We regard A Curriculum for Excellence as a top priority, not something that may or may not osmose into the life of schools and its staff," he said. "It's important that a clear and strong message of its importance is given to all staff in the education service."

Mr Manson said one of the messages he wanted staff to take away concerned their own role in making the initiative a success. "I'm hoping they will have got the message that this is not an exclusively top-down development, whereas many in the past have been," he said. "Support and direction will be given by the local authority, but there will be an expectation that staff in schools will assume ownership as well."

Orkney also drew praise from Mrs Sweeney for a number of other ways in which it is gearing up for the curriculum reforms, including plans to smooth the move from primary to secondary school - with a particular focus on science and modern languages.

Joint work is also taking place with Shetland Islands Council. Marilyn Richards, Orkney's head of quality development, said both authorities were seconding a primary teacher to work in secondary schools. The two teachers will draw up a plan that will have relevance across the curriculum.

The conviction of the authorities in exploring this idea is underlined by their approach to Aberdeen University to seek accreditation for the two teachers' roles.

Mrs Richards said Orkney was keen to develop vocational skills among all third and fourth-year pupils in its junior high schools. "It's about developing schools for life - it's not about training for a particular job."

Orkney's enthusiasm for A Curriculum for Excellence was also evident among teachers. John Moar, head of Firth Primary and science co-ordinator for Orkney schools, hopes that, by reducing the emphasis on preparation for exams, there will be a widespread rediscovery of the intrinsic pleasure of learning.

Mr Moar, who is part of a Scotland-wide team developing new curriculum guidance for science, commented: "What we will be doing is trying to find things out and rediscover the joy of learning. We have all been trying to make children jump through hoops and it has been a detrimental experience for them and the teachers.

"The big difference will be in how you teach rather than what you teach.

Some people are still waiting for A Curriculum for Excellence to come out with directions. It's not about that."

Mr Moar hopes the emphasis will be on the quality, rather than quantity, of learning. "It's better to do one thing thoroughly," he added. "If you throw a bunch of facts at people, they just slide off like fried egg on Teflon."

Mark Taylor, a teacher at Stromness Primary, showed how the scope of education could be broadened. He took a session at the festival in which he explained how he used animation in the classroom. "This is a fantastic motivational way of learning, and of connecting with boys who are frustrated with reading and writing. They're still getting involved with the literature side of it, but not realising it."

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