Field of dreams

18th May 2012 at 01:00
A South Ayrshire school has been gifted a piece of land by a local business - a rare resource to help cultivate Curriculum for Excellence

This unremarkable-looking piece of land has been put to many uses over the years, from farming to landfill, before ending up as a neglected part of an industrial estate. But its latest reincarnation is the inspiration for a continuing professional development programme which is literally groundbreaking.

Pupils at Girvan Academy have been out planting hundreds of saplings and sowing a meadow, since Nestle gifted a seven-acre site at its South Ayrshire factory to the school last year to create a biodiversity area.

In recent months, opportunities have also been growing for staff and schoolchildren alike in developing the broader, interdisciplinary teaching and learning set out under Curriculum for Excellence.

Technology classes have been rapidly producing signs for a butterfly trail, and there are plans to support geography teachers to lead their own field trips on the site in future. Maths pupils can work out how much top soil is needed to help stabilise the earth for the construction of an outdoors classroom, with lessons in bricklaying and stonemasonry being lined up.

"Some of us have also had to undergo cycling CPD!" laughs Ellen Aitken, a guidance and pupil support teacher who is playing a lead role in the programme.

She is referring to the need to meet health and safety requirements after a recent pound;10,000 award from Cycling Scotland to pay for bicycles for staff and pupils to reach the site, which is about three miles from the school.

"Starting this month, the entire second year will go out to plan what they want from the site. We have got maths, geography and science teachers joining us to see how they can use the site for lessons. It's not the typical question of `How do I achieve active learning in a science class?' here," she says.

"Most teachers seem very enthusiastic and we're hoping a range of pupils will enjoy the site through a range of subjects.

"Being in such a rural area, staff here are used to very much looking outwith the box and asking `What else can we do?'."

While the overall focus of the project is sustainability, working with local firms and other partners has also brought valuable professional development in management, especially for senior staff, says headteacher Allan Rattray.

"Lots of people are offering their services and joint working is in itself a learning curve for lots of us. Businesses expect things to happen very quickly, whereas in education we tend to do things a bit more slowly. They talk more about profit, and we talk about learning outcomes.

"One of the benefits of working with firms like Nestle for me, as a head, is seeing on a weekly basis the differences between how they manage their workforce and keep them informed, and how we do that."

He knows the school is lucky to have such an asset, particularly when schools are struggling to pay for CfE-focused resources.

South Ayrshire Council estimates its share of the pound;3.5 million which education minister Michael Russell recently announced for extra in-service training and resources will be pound;70,000-pound;80,000.

Most of that is being invested in commissioning teachers to create CfE materials for courses for "gap" areas which they feel are not covered elsewhere.

Margo Williamson, council head of curriculum and service improvement, explains: "Our lead principal teachers meet with other principal teachers in their subject to work together to produce materials drawing on each other's best practice in subjects where we can't find materials.

"Some teachers will choose to do this outwith the school day and we will give them study support rates. Schools will also free teachers up to do this during the day. This will be the main use of the money."

The initiative gives teachers valuable opportunities in leadership, which is the main focus of the council's CPD programme for CfE.

"Education Scotland has helped us with (a programme called) `Opening up Transformational Thinking', getting teachers to think beyond the classroom and their subject, to wider children's services and a solutions-focused approach," Ms Williamson continues.

"For example, in ICT, moving away from the response of `You can't do that because corporate services won't let you' to thinking, `let's say you could, what could you do then?' and calculating the risks, so you can go to corporate services and say this is why we need this and why it would work."

She believes staff are very enthusiastic about creating courses themselves, an assertion borne out at Kyle Academy in Ayr which has been leading the way in creating materials for teaching subjects like biology.

This DIY-approach to teaching CfE might suggest that Education Scotland is not doing enough to help teachers deliver the new curriculum. However, Kyle Academy's depute head, Mary Byrne, says: "I refer to them a lot to see what's happening nationally. It can be reassuring to see that you're on the same track.

"My feeling is that most schools take something from them and adapt it, as it always has to be appropriate to your learning community. I know a lot of people don't have time to go through all the materials (on the Education Scotland website), but they are a good support."

The academy also runs a successful Literacy for Learning group helping teachers across South Ayrshire, after being showcased at a regional CfE festival earlier this year.

A former English teacher herself, Ms Byrne admits that teachers of other subjects were apprehensive at first, but are now positive about the benefits of, for example, being able to assess pupils' presentations in home economics in terms of literacy as well as subject content.

Science teacher Danielle Hawkins admits it was daunting initially, but she is so sure the strategy works that she now has a "literacy wall" in her classroom featuring newspaper reports on recycling.

"I love displaying pupils' work and ensuring they understand that what they are learning isn't just science; there's a literacy element too.

"The more you use literacy and the more you see other staff using it, the more confident you become. Being part of the school's CPD literacy group has also given me the experience of passing on that CPD to other science teachers."

Geography and modern studies teacher Ross Miller, who represents his subjects on the literacy group, says that the best CPD for CfE he has used so far came from a PE teacher at the school.

"She does huge work on the written part of PE and looking at her approach to writing structure was like an epiphany of `Why didn't I think of that?'" he says.

"She got pupils to write holistically, linking back to the topic of the question at the end of each paragraph. and visualising, boosting memory skills too.

"I have used her approach for teaching the water cycle, telling pupils to visualise themselves as a water molecule and to write a piece of work telling the story of their journey through rivers and lakes, evaporating and coming back through the clouds, instead of just writing a few paragraphs on what the cycle is."

Back at Girvan Academy, physics teacher Peter Long is leading an in-house CPD programme helping colleagues use popular internet sites to enhance pupils' learning across subjects.

He says: "I have always been interested in web design and I made my own blog associated with the school and integrate Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. It has resources, homework, pupils' notes; it's a one-stop-shop for resources.

"A lot of teachers find it hard to see how they can use these sites for education. I do workshops showing them how to set these things up and use them, for example, with pupils recording revision periods on an iPhone using diagrams and voice-overs, and then watching it at home and commenting on it. Twitter is used a lot to ask questions."

As the Nestle site continues to develop, staff hope it will be the source of many solutions.

Partnership working helps boost professional expertise

While most of South Ayshire's share of the new pound;3.5 million Scottish government funding to support continuing professional development for Curriculum for Excellence is being invested in a "DIY" approach to meet specific needs, external providers are also playing a role in the region.

Leadership and literacy are the focus of several CPD packages from them, which South Ayrshire Council has funded to help deliver CfE.

One well-known provider is Tapestry, an independent not-for-profit body promoting creative CPD. Its year-long school leadership course tailored to the CfE approach has been taken by staff at three of South Ayrshire's secondaries.

The council has also paid for leadership input from Aspect, the professional association for children's services, to support its key in- house literacy scheme promoting reading and writing across subjects.

Education Scotland has been promoting its CPD Find, a search engine to help schools source providers.

South Ayrshire's head of curriculum and service improvement, Margo Williamson, says the tool has helped to find useful literacy events to buy into, run by Glasgow University expert Willie McGuire and fellow city academic Professor Brian Boyd, who is co-founder of Tapestry and a former member of the ministerial working group for CfE.

Former teacher and lecturer turned education consultant Lynda Keith has been paid to run numeracy CPD events for the region's teachers.

The council has also paid for school staff to attend courses run by another Scottish CPD provider, Learning Unlimited (now part of Cambridge Education), focusing on cooperative learning and designing approaches to health and well-being.

All these programmes have been funded to support the regionwide approach to CfE.

But Ms Williamson says most of the decision-making on CPD resources and responsibilities is devolved to schools, to give teachers choice over which CPD providers best meet their community's needs.

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