Primaries try culture that is not a cult

The critical skills programme aims to involve pupils in and out of the classroom, David Henderson reports

Primary children prefer to learn through working together and by agreeing among themselves the rules for listening and class discipline, according to two West Lothian heads who have embraced the critical skills programme, the New York State-devised approach to better behaviour and focused learning that is rapidly gaining Scottish converts.

Anne Callan, new head of Williamston Primary in Livingston, describes the CSP approach - stressing pupil involvement in key decisions in and out of the classroom - as "part of the culture of the school, without it being a cult".

A national course for headteachers in the capital last week, run by two trainers from New York State, underlined the growing support for the methods that are said to be transforming schools across the Atlantic.

Mrs Callan, along with Alison Fox, outgoing head of Boghall Primary in Bathgate, has been deploying the collaborative learning techniques for the past year with pupils, staff, parents and other professionals within the new community school cluster. Mrs Callan has been head at Murrayfield Primary in Blackburn.

She said: "The children love it and ask to learn that way. They are learning collaboratively, have ownership of their own learning and help to determine the success criteria. It's beginning to change the school, although it's early days. It's clearly made a lot of people think about the learning going in the school and the teaching they are doing."

Mrs Callan explained that a P1 teacher had run a project on creating a farmyard through CSP. "They had to decide what a farmyard looked like, sounded like and smelled like. Because of their limitations in writing, they drew the pictures to go with that. They had to work together and share ideas," she said.

Mrs Fox has used the approach with the school assembly. "We introduced a shared language so that the whole school could use it. We decided what a quality audience was, what was a quality discussion, and then we went on to what was a quality pupil and what was a quality teacher. That was a bit scary. And what made a quality team.

"We used a digital camera and got the kids to set up scenarios and we took pictures of what it was like to be a good listener. After that we did displays around the corridors. Even our pupil council chair tapped the table and asked for a quality audience," Mrs Fox said.

She describes the approach as cross-curricular, fitting in with citizenship, education for work and the recent focus on creativity. "By using CSP in the classroom, you tick off all those other areas," she adds.

Both heads also deployed the approach with their staffs as part of the post-McCrone agreement and are reported to have struck more favourable school deals on the management of time than many others. Mrs Callan said teachers saw the model in a real-life context.

"Until we had an agreement about how much time we had for development work, we couldn't do the development plan. So we looked at, with the staff, what an autonomous professional teacher was: what that meant to them, what it looked like, sounded like, felt like - using the CSP model," she said.

Teachers had to become "experts" in the McCrone detail and explain it to others. After that, there was common agreement on the autonomous professional teacher and posters were pinned up in the staffroom as a visual reminder. They included mentions of time for parents, writing reports and after-school activity.

Five out of nine teachers at Boghall then signed up for the CSP courses, having gone through the process themselves.

Mrs Fox also successfully tried the method with her school board in its contribution to the national debate on education.

Bruce Bonney, CSP co-ordinator in New York State, said he had seen children organise and run parents' evenings when they were given the responsibility.

"Get the kids to do it. They'll tell parents what you're doing," he advised.

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