Senior pupils are giving juniors another perspective on their work, acting as class assistants, reports John Cairney
Barry McGinness, aged 17, passed his Higher music only last year but is already putting his knowledge and skills to good use. He is one of a group of sixth year volunteers at St Aidan's High School in Wishaw, North Lanarkshire, who take part in a learning partners scheme that helps younger pupils.
As a senior learning partner, Barry spends two periods a week in the English department and two in the learning support department on a one-to-one basis with pupils, and once a week visits the music department to work with second year pupils on their keyboard skills, keyboards being one of his instrumental specialisms.
His contribution is much appreciated by two of his junior learning partners. "My skills are better than they were before Barry came in," says 13-year-old Anna Brown*, "because the teacher has three different instruments to help pupils with and we are getting more attention and help when Barry is here."
Her classmate, Deborah Boyle, agrees. "It helps a lot when he is here because he is able to see all the keyboard players, whereas the teacher can't see everyone."
The young music assistant says: "The kids enjoy learning from a point of view other than the teacher's and I feel that I am contributing to their learning."
The learning partners scheme has its origins in a paired reading initiative set up by the school's learning support department in the 1980s. As it evolved and expanded, individual departments retained responsibility, but this session the remit was given to two senior teachers, Elizabeth Hamilton in English and Samantha Sweeney in music. Currently the scheme is used by the maths, English, music and learning support departments and involves almost 40 senior learning partners accessing approximately 85 junior partners. There is a clear structure, with the seniors using a record of work and with regular evaluation and feedback sessions organised by the co-ordinators.
Marie-Clare Hamilton, aged 16, is one of two sixth year students who not only take part in teaching the younger pupils but also help to co-ordinate the programme. She and Stephen Duffy work with staff from the departments involved, helping to identify sixth years with free time and matching them with appropriate junior partners. Volunteers are then given training in paired reading and computer activities.
The co-ordinators recently issued a questionnaire to the senior learning partners. "It is clear from the replies," says Marie-Clare, "that a lot of people feel that it is a very worthwhile experience. It lets them share their knowledge and use their time wisely."
Michael Hughes, one of those who replied, says: "I feel that even though I spend only one period a week with these pupils, I have made a small but not insignificant difference to their education."
Brian Weir, the principal teacher of learning support, says there are always young pupils keen to become involved. "Children are invited to take part and then there is consultation with them and their parents. Parents are more than supportive because they can see the benefits for their children. In fact, demand exceeds supply, because other pupils see how well it works and want to take part."
The benefits are not confined to the curriculum: partnerships also help social development. Katie McTear, a junior learning partner in a third year English class, says: "You make friends, even if they are only a reading partner."
The staff also see benefits. Principal maths teacher Kenny Dyson describes the scheme as a highly valuable resource. "We are being stretched with new courses and the individual attention is invaluable. Because the senior learning partners have been through the system, they are aware of the mystique of maths and can give the younger pupils more confidence.
"Whatever method of teaching we use, whether direct teaching or individual learning, the learning partners programme enhances it."
The senior pupils' chalkface experiences could have longer-term effects, Marie-Clare says. "A few of the people involved in the programme are hoping for future careers in teaching and this is a valuable experience for that."
*Anna Brown is not her real name. Article amended 04/04/2019 to anonymise the student.