A meeting of hearts and minds

8th May 2009 at 01:00
The new curriculum was put to the test in an unusual way at one West Lothian school

The heart-shaped balloons have gone but memories of the night before - the relationships that blossomed, the coy looks, the shy smiles - linger in the air.

It is the morning after a bout of speed-dating with a difference at St Kentigern's Academy in West Lothian. Modern languages really hit it off with craft, design and technology, proving it is true that opposites attract. The rapport between modern languages and science was less apparent, however, and they failed to find any obvious common ground. Meanwhile, English and music fell head over heels - they've already hooked up.

This is speed-dating by faculty in action. All St Kentigern's principal teachers of curriculum, along with a principal teacher of pupil support, came together last Wednesday to uncover cross-curricular links in the S1 curriculum.

They rated their date using a traffic lights system - green if links already existed, amber if they thought links were possible, and red if there was no spark. Each lonely heart had seven 10-minute dates. When the rating cards came in, there were six red, 36 amber and 17 green.

Kristy Rennie, principal teacher of curriculum for modern languages and English, organised the event. "The idea was that the links had to be meaningful and enhance students' skills. We didn't want contrived links," she said.

This is just one example of the way in which St Kentigern's is pushing forward with A Curriculum for Excellence. The school has been testing the outcomes and experiences in every department over the past year and plans to deliver the new curriculum to S1 in August.

Last week, a meeting was held with parents, and teachers have been surveyed to uncover their lesser-known talents to make a weekly elective available for S1-2. An orienteering-mad geography teacher and a robot- building computing teacher are likely to be running courses.

Unlike many teachers, staff at St Kentigern's are "not particularly concerned" about the introduction of A Curriculum for Excellence, feels headteacher Stephen Campbell. And that's the impression The TESS gets. Like others, they are keen to see how the new qualifications framework will look and would wish for more development time but there is no sense that A Curriculum for Excellence will be impossible to deliver or doomed to fail.

One concern is access to computers. Teachers with banks of computers in their classrooms consider themselves lucky. Those without are concerned about delivering on the ICT-related outcomes in their subjects. And St Kentigern's is not a technology-poor school. Every member of staff has a laptop and all classrooms have smart boards.

However, one teacher says ACfE will finally allow her to be the teacher she wanted to be when she left university, running a more active and pupil-led classroom and not teaching to exams. Others agree it will bring change, but the general consensus seems to be that what is being called for is far from alien. Younger members of staff say they are not worried because they have "grown up" in teaching with A Curriculum for Excellence.

Good continuing professional development is the key to comfort, says Mr Campbell. "If we had not been talking about our craft as teachers at St Kentigern's, looking at how we teach as well as what we teach, I might not be feeling relaxed," he says.

As things stand, it all appears to be coming together nicely. St Kentigern's is in the midst of a refurbishment, involving some new building. However, work should be finished by September, which dovetails nicely with their first stab at ACfE.

There will be a new dance studio, allowing the school to run Higher dance for the first time, and the "impressive" new social area is already being used creatively, says Mr Campbell, with everything from maths competitions to theatre productions being held in the space.

Nevertheless, Mr Campbell returns, as ever, to the people: "We're not going to do it without a highly-skilled workforce"

And CPD need not cost the earth. Much of the talent he needs to tap into is freely available on site, he argues.

"People say they are scared because there is no direction but we are giving each other direction," explains Sarah King, a history and modern studies teacher at the school, and cluster coordinator for Curriculum for Excellence. "The direction is coming from the teachers, as opposed to coming from above."

Religious Education

Pupils tend to look down on RE and it can be tough motivating them, RE teacher Michael Harrison admits. So the department saw ACfE as an opportunity to use personalisation and choice in S5 and S6 as a means of engaging pupils.

A range of modules for pupils to choose from was created, including philosophical thinking; morality and global awareness; sexual morality and relationships and a music course which culminated in pupils performing school mass.

It was a "radical change", says Mr Harrison, and "definitely worked". Next year, as a result, the school plans to offer Intermediate 2 philosophy as an option in S5.


Jennifer Dyet had no ambition to be the kind of teacher that stood in front of the class and told pupils what they would be doing, with little participation. But she got into bad habits, she admits, trying to get older classes through exams and that very teacher-led style filtered into her lessons lower down the school. A Curriculum for Excellence is her chance to transform her teaching, she feels.

Testing the new curriculum with S1, Ms Dyet began by finding out how her class learned. "I found they were more kinesthetic learners, they wanted to be hands on," she says. "And they were very visual."

She then used a KWL sheet to ascertain what they knew, what they would like to know and eventually what they had learnt. The class, due to study compounds, wanted to know how fireworks produced different colours.

"I wouldn't have thought to teach that - I suppose because I had the knowledge. We watched a short clip of a fireworks display, discussed the colours, discussed the periodic table and they went off with some compounds and did a flame test, recording the colours."

Even getting to grips with word equations (oxygen + carbon = carbon dioxide) has been done through active learning, with pupils building their own equations using cut-out words.

Change is daunting, Ms Dyet admits, but revamping her lessons was "a breath of fresh air".


English, social subjects and RE worked together to deliver a range of outcomes through a project on prejudice, touching on sectarianism, Islamophobia and anti-English feeling, says principal teacher of curriculum for English and modern languages, Kristy Rennie.

S2 pupils looked at different texts - an extract from Theresa Breslin's Divided City, newspaper articles and a Panorama documentary. In social subjects, they looked at the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, national identity and stereotyping. In RE, they looked at prejudice from a moral and philosophical standpoint.

English made lessons more active by drawing a line across the class and asking pupils to arrange themselves along the line depending on how strongly they felt certain statements were or were not a problem, such as: police figures show 100 per cent increase in faith hate crime.

English teachers have always had more flexibility to change resources and approaches than more content-led subjects, Ms Rennie felt. But she welcomed the more holistic approach to learning encouraged by the new curriculum.


Two pupils sword fighting in class might not sound desirable, but when they are presenting what they have found out about mathematician Archimedes, who was killed by a Roman soldier, it doesn't get much better, says maths teacher Kirsty McAninch.

After giving her S1 an over-view of the history of maths, Ms McAninch charged them with investigating a mathematician and reporting back to the class. Some used a PowerPoint presentation; others chose role-play. "Curriculum for Excellence allows us to get on with more teaching and learning, rather than being exam-focused and we can go into things in depth, like investigating mathematicians."

And the pupils? They discovered maths is "not always boring".


Art and design hit on some health and well-being outcomes when pupils designed posters to promote the school's healthy-eating tuck shop and furniture with a fruit motif for its refurbished dining room.

"Pupils were issued with rigid design briefs, which require them to take into account things like health and safety and costings," says art teacher Gillian McClay.

Both projects required pupils to work in groups and develop their critical skills.

Ms McClay and fellow art teacher Bryan Johnstone feel their subject is well placed to embrace the four capacities of ACfE and to work with other departments. Less than 10 years into their careers, they say A Curriculum for Excellence is all they have known.

Modern language

The teaching in S1 is set to become more creative, with fewer lessons delivered via the textbook.

The department has also started to transform S2 French classes, aiming to teach pupils the language while increasing their awareness of "social, cultural and geographical aspects" of francophone countries.

They looked at five countries along the Greenwich Meridian Line - France, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali and Togo - and used young people speaking in French about their lives in these countries to raise pupils' awareness. French teacher Colette Cordiner says: "Pupils were shocked to hear it took some children 90 minutes to walk to school."

Re-writing courses for all years for ACfE is a daunting prospect, she admits, "but a lot of what we are doing is appropriate; it's just how we are doing it, enhancing it more, and thinking about literacy, numeracy and ICT."

Home economics

When home economics decided to introduce world foods into its S1 course, the staff collaborated with geography and RE, so pupils built up a rounded picture of the countries featured.

Normally, that slot would have been dedicated to healthy eating, but teacher Laura Grant managed to combine the two topics. "For the Chinese part of the course we made a chow mein," she says. "As the pupils were making it, we discussed the health benefits and why it was better to dry fry than fry in oil."

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