Aliens have landed in Paisley
An alien invasion is the last thing a well-run school needs, you might think. All that slime, green skin and wriggling tentacles would upset the teachers and disrupt the timetable. But at Kersland School in Paisley, a whole host of aliens have been bringing sunshine, smiles and active learning into the lives of youngsters with significant support needs.
"Four terms and eight curricular areas makes two each term," says headteacher Carol Jackson. "Last term, the school theme was 'Storyland', which we used to combine language with technology.
"We had the wee ones doing nursery rhymes and fairy stories. Further up, they were looking at Roald Dahl, Harry Potter, Tracy Beaker and High School Musical. The oldest children decided they would do Romeo and Juliet. "Well, 17 and 18-year-olds with severe learning difficulties doing Shakespeare - it was a marvellous success. They got the ideas. They understood what it was all about. It was wonderful."
This term, the theme is "Alien Invasion", with the curricular focus on science and the expressive arts. Infants are interacting with space chimps and flying to the moon. Middle-school pupils are travelling in the Tardis. Older children are studying Star Wars and exploring the Red Planet.
Many Kersland pupils can't talk, but can communicate using sign language, gestures and facial expressions. "Baby bear looked up at the night sky, just like our night sky," teacher Janice Finnigen reads from a book by Jill Murphy, while the moon and stars shine down on a brick chimney on the wall behind her. "'Can I go to the moon?'" asked baby bear. "No you can't," said his mum. "'It's bath-time.'"
But the intrepid chap finds a rocket under the stairs and heads up the chimney into space, with the kids right beside him, interacting with the objects and animals he meets on the way - an owl, a teddy bear, space-boots and, of course, a picnic, because there is nothing to eat on the moon.
Eyes wide, mouths open in wonder, the youngsters listen to sounds and story and take turns to find the props and perform the actions. They wave to a passing plane, sing a song and pick out stars with flashlights.
"The children get excited and that gets us excited too," says Mrs Finnigen. "Look at these aliens they've made," she indicates motley tentacled shapes in clay beneath a wall display of multicoloured underwear.
"That activity was inspired by Aliens Love Underpants, by Claire Freedman. The Curriculum for Excellence topic work is similar to what we did before, but it gives us more scope, freedom and flexibility. The children love being creative. It lets them express themselves, which can be hard for our kids."
"People tell us our classrooms are looking fabulous, and they are. But that's just surface stuff. The learning behind the razzmatazz is what's important," says Mrs Jackson.
Beneath a life-sized spaceman in a yellow suit hanging from the ceiling, Nicole, 14, reads out what she has written about life on Mars. "I would feel lonely when I walked on the Red Planet. I would run off."
While a group makes star charts using spinning discs and marbles dipped in paint, teacher Lorraine McDermott explains the impact of the approach. "The beauty of Curriculum for Excellence is that you can tease out your outcomes appropriate to the stage you're teaching, and to each individual child.
"You can gear every subject towards it. It gives the children ownership and it sets free our creativity as teachers. You can feel it - the staff have a buzz about them, as well as the kids."
One topic created such a stir last term that it was carried forward to this one - Roald Dahl's Twits setting off into space, but losing none of their repellently fascinating ways. "The children have been working with buddies from the secondary school to build a house in space for the Twits," explains P7 teacher Maureen Randall. "They've been going from planet to planet, leaving clues."
The Twits appeared one day from the cupboard, young John recalls. "They walked like this," he says, giving a convincing impression of a bent, old woman, which grows even more lifelike as he dons a long brown wig, a fake beard and hooked nose, and starts stumping around the classroom to the whoops and squeals of his classmates.
For Laura, however, the repulsiveness of the Twits outweighs their appeal. "They came in that door and out that one," she says with a shudder.
So the Twits were actually teachers hiding in the cupboard? "Shhh!" cautions Mrs Jackson. "That's like telling the kids about Santa Claus."
Belief in myths and aliens comes easy to children, but the secret of Kersland's success is that the staff are equally engaged.
"The new curriculum isn't a huge change for us," says Mrs Jackson. "We have always taught to the topic because it's the best way to educate our children."