A nursery that can teach secondaries a thing or two

16th May 2008 at 01:00
There is a startling possibility deep within A Curriculum for Excellence - one that is only just coming to the surface: Scotland's secondary schools might have something to learn from what goes on in the nursery
There is a startling possibility deep within A Curriculum for Excellence - one that is only just coming to the surface: Scotland's secondary schools might have something to learn from what goes on in the nursery.

The idea would have been dismissed until recently as absurd. Secondary schools were the places where serious education was delivered, with subject specialists being the people who delivered it. Primary schools were for reading, writing and arithmetic, and kids just played games in the nurseries, surely, while mum went out to work.

"It was always a fresh start when children moved from primary to secondary or from pre-school to primary," says Joan Bradley, Glen Family Centre's headteacher. "That has changed. There has been a lot of work on the transitions.

"A Curriculum for Excellence is a whole new world for secondary schools, and they are now starting to learn - about things like cross-curricular working and putting the child at the centre - from the primary schools. I believe they can also learn from what we do in the nursery."

It's an observation that arose originally from cluster meetings with colleagues. "They were talking the other day about rich tasks in the secondary (a cross-curricular approach to learning, developed in Queensland). Well that is how we work in pre-five. It would be nice to let them see how it's done."

Planning is an important part of it, as it is in every school. At the start of the current session, Glen Family Centre adopted a novel method brought back and adapted from a degree course being pursued by two child development officers on the staff.

"It's the BA in childhood studies at Strathclyde University," says Joanne Fairclough. "When they showed us big book planning, we thought it was wonderful. It got the children so involved. We asked Joan if we could give it a wee try and, once we'd explained it, she decided we would all do it."

Plenty of preparation preceded the launch in August 2007, with the centre's teachers working with its child development officers to marry the methods with the curriculum - whose learning outcomes are the starting point for each big book.

For the moment, these are taken from 3-5 rather than Curriculum for Excellence, says Mrs Bradley. "We are moving towards that but won't throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Staff observe how children are getting on with the outcomes, explains Jennifer McGunnigle, who is also in the third year of the childhood studies degree course. "We classify them as emerging, developing or skilled. We also look at how they are doing against the four capacities, and we record all that for each child every month."

The big books themselves - A3 with laminated covers, colourfully illustrated by the children - are created by each of the four groups in the nursery. The first page lists the eight or so learning outcomes for the six-week block of work addressed by that book.

Many of the following 20 or so pages take the form of a big, bold question, surrounded by answers given by named children during planning meetings that are held several times a week.

There are three types of question:

- The first elicits prior learning, for example: "What do we know about electricity?"

- The second seeks suggestions for activities to address that week's two learning outcomes: "What will we do in the art and craft area?"

- The third reviews the work: "What have we been learning this week?"

Children's suggested activities - "Draw me in my house"; "Paint my hands and make a picture of a peacock" - help guide staff to identify possible lines of development, and to select and prepare the resources needed to follow them through.

"What makes the difference is that the children get to choose, rather than us telling them," says Miss McGunnigle. "And that's right, because it is all about their learning."

The final component is visual evidence, in the form of drawings, paintings and photographs, of the children's achievements.

The motivation among children and staff, that all this engenders, more than justifies the time and thought it takes to set the system up and keep it going, says Joan Bradley. A key point is that children see their ideas are valued, because they are written down and kept, and can be referred to later.

"The informed adult is always there, guiding what goes on. But the context comes from children's choices. They grow more vocal as time goes by. Their answers become more complex and interesting. We gain evidence for mums and dads, who love looking at big books on parents' nights, and for HMIE. The inspectors have to see for themselves what you've been doing - and, of course, they did."

Big book planning; www.ltscotland.org.ukearlyyearsprofessionaldevelopmenteventsLTSseminarsinvolvementseminarindex.asp.

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