Bravehearts put the record straight

22nd August 2008 at 01:00
St Kessog's Primary in Balloch has taken A Curriculum for Excellence to a new level. Douglas Blane reports

It takes patience to record a whole school for radio, particularly in small groups of mixed-age children. "Let's try again," says the earphoned Mark Sheridan from behind a mobile studio installed at St Kessog's Primary in Balloch. "All we got was the rustling of paper."

"Can you remember what to say without the paper?" his Strathclyde University colleague, Marion Sheridan, asks. The children demonstrate that they can, by stepping up to the microphone to add their efforts to the audio record of a project the school has been working on.

"I like going to Loch Lomond Shores with my class," young Hamish (P1) announces clearly.

"On Friday, we have many things to do," says Tessa (P5). "We had Mapland in to tell us all about Scotland - that was amazing."

The recording sessions are the culmination of a whole-school project which last term took Scotland as its theme, says headteacher Irene McKerry. "We've had a different project every term, right from the start of A Curriculum for Excellence two years ago. We began with health, an easy one. Then we did enterprise, global citizenship and art."

Health and enterprise featured again in the early terms of the session. "But we did them an entirely different way," she says. "Enterprise was about making things to sell in the first year, with profits going to our link school in South Africa.

"This year, it was about putting on a show. The focus last term was science and technology. That was great. We had a Dragons' Den, with every class working on a technology brief and delivering a Textease presentation.

"We had ZooLab for biodiversity, and blood, bile and body bits from the Glasgow Science Centre, with the focus on life and cells. We had a mad scientist day with the kids researching perceptions of scientists. We had Dr Bunhead on materials and Edinburgh University on electronic circuits. We had a global warming show and a day of experiments set up by my teachers."

Making meaningful contact with experts, parents and local businesses motivates the pupils, says Mrs McKerry. "We've had entrepreneurs, mechanics, biochemists, nurses, social workers. But it's not all about getting people in from outside. If we can do it ourselves, we will."

Educators are sometimes dismissive of schools that tackle the new curriculum by doing something one afternoon and saying "that's A Curriculum for Excellence done for the week". But it's not a criticism that can be levelled at St Kessog's, where staff and pupils are enthused by the cross-curricular projects, and the commitment to the new curriculum is underpinned by a gradualist approach that works.

"In 35 years of teaching, this is the most exciting time for me - because of A Curriculum for Excellence," says Mrs McKerry. "We've got our creativity, initiative and professionalism back. With the projects, we started small, a few years ago, with a focus on global citizenship, then on art, which lasted a week each. It was a good way to build expertise for the whole-school projects that last a term."

In the staffroom, last term's science focus gets high marks from several teachers. "I saw a huge difference in children who aren't confident in language," says P2 teacher Anne Murray. "They really came to the fore. It motivated some boys, who would usually just sit back."

Dance, drama and music activities create opportunities for children other than those who normally shine, say the teachers. Infants are just as keen as the older children to get involved.

"We've had the children working in groups of different ages," says Brenda Bowes, who teaches P7. "I've noticed children who would be reluctant to share with their peers really enjoying themselves in organising the younger children."

Back at the recording studio, some of the Bravehearts confirm that this was indeed fun. "I liked working in the groups, because there were people of all ages in them," says Tessa (P5). "It's good to know what other people think."

Kerry (P7), who came up with the Bravehearts name, enjoyed teaching the wee ones: "It made a change from being taught yourself."

But the best part, say several children, is this recording session. "I liked going up to the microphone," says Connor (P2). "It was annoying having to do it again, though."

"I really liked being on the radio," laughs Paul (P4-5). "It made me feel like a pop star."

As the recording session reaches its climax, the children gather around the microphones one last time. "Let's try it all together," Marion Sheridan tells them. "This is goodbye from ."

Seven sets of young lungs and smiling faces give it all they've got: "THE BRAVEHEARTS!"

Celtic Music Radio is a community station based at the University of Strathclyde.,

Optimal experience

Besides creating short radio features and CDs of all the pupils' experiences, Strathclyde University has been researching children's learning during the latest project.

The methodology adapts the concept of optimal experience elaborated by Croatian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Essentially, this extends and develops into other areas, including education, the feeling of being "in the zone" expressed by successful sportspeople.

This is the first time, says Mark Sheridan, that the learning of a whole school has been assessed in this way. "While Marion and I have been working with the children, Charles Byrne has been collecting data and analysing results with Brian Boyd."

Forms are easy to complete, says Ryan (P7), indicating separate boxes for alert, relaxed, happy, on-task, successful, confident, excited, clear, challenged, cooperative and cheerful. "You just mark how much you feel of each of them at the time."

There is a temptation to be always positive, he says, "especially if your teacher is going to see it". But he makes an effort not to.

Classmate Katie reminds herself, when completing the form, that it's about research not assessment. She points to a couple of low entries. "I wasn't on-task here because it was early in the morning. In this one I wasn't cheerful, because the wee ones on the Scotland project were being annoying. They are cute, but don't listen. We were colouring in the mascots and they made their legs orange. They looked more like Cheesy Wotsits."


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