Four radical routes pave the way for a life in the real world
If you were to take a straw poll in most primary schools today, it is likely that a majority of senior managers and classroom teachers would agree that the curriculum is over-crowded, and many would complain about lack of time.
Dean Park Primary in Edinburgh has chosen to tackle this head on by adopting a faculty system which, it says, not only promotes subject "integration" but embraces fully the purposes of A Curriculum for Excellence. "To counter the crowded curriculum, we felt that the ground level of the subjects had to feed into something that would unite them, and that is why we've adopted a four-faculty system covering ecology, enterprise, health and citizenship," says head Colin Russell.
"Naturally, the faculties will overlap at certain points. But this is to the good. For example, a class covering a topic in ecology will be involved in subject areas such as writing, art, maths and science. But it will also touch on issues of health (the effects of pollution, for instance), citizenship (looking after the environment) and enterprise - say, delivering a PowerPoint presentation to other classes or to parents."
Both implicitly and explicitly, the pupils are made aware that they are pursuing, and hopefully achieving, the four curriculum goals of being successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.
"The children must know not only what they are learning, but why," says Dr Russell. "Primary education is nothing if it is just a series of skills. These skills are necessary, but not sufficient. What is sufficient is an understanding of the inter-relationship of discrete subjects. A child should emerge from school understanding that you have to look after yourself, look after others and look after the planet. This applies to every child. There is nothing elitist in it. It means education for all and education for real life."
This is what Dr Russell calls the "epistemology" underlying the faculty model. But there is also a practical leadership dimension driving it. Each faculty has its own convener who "grew" into the role through his or her own professional interests and development.
For example, citizenship convener Susan Arnott is a "global teacher" who has already visited Malawi and set up strong links with partner primary Gwengwere. She is, therefore, in the ideal position to lead on citizenship values and links, both local and international.
"We are beyond the days when a headteacher can be a master of all skills," says Dr Russell, who insists the conveners are not evidence of "delegated leadership" but of "situated leadership".
Each faculty also has its own staff committee (involving both school janitors) as well as a pupil committee, a sub-set of the pupil council.
"The pupils are involved in the faculty model throughout," says Pam Watson, health convener and P7 class teacher. "They feed into the model from circle time to pupil representatives through to their faculty committees and the full pupil council. The head boy and girl also sit in on school management meetings, so that they are always involved.
"Pupils must know why they are learning as well as what. It's important they understand and can apply terms like 'ecology' or 'successful learner' - and they do," she says.
But how does the faculty model impinge on classroom practice?
"It enhances and endorses it," she says. "It gives the children a buzz because they feel they are learning 'for real'. Everything is brought together. Nothing is fragmented. The result is that their enthusiasm is obvious."
It is also true that the staff enthusiasm for the model is apparent.
Terry Anthony, ecology convener and P6 class teacher, says: "The faculty model turns the traditional curriculum upside down. It is looking at learning as part of the real world and everything can be fitted in. It's simpler and cleaner. You have four faculties driving the curriculum rather than 15 subjects."
He gives the example of a topic on energy to show how the model impinges on his classroom practice. Where once you might have isolated electricity for study, now you are more likely to make a comparison between renewable and non-renewable energies.
"You might take wind farms which pupils will be aware of from television or their own environment - so it's to do with the real world from the start," he says. "But you can make comparisons with fossil fuels and this leads you not only into environmental issues and issues of responsible citizenship, but also into history, to the industry and the industrial smog of the past.
"You are looking at technology, perhaps by constructing windmills and water-driven turbines. You are writing, drawing and discussing, looking at problem-solving, ethics and design. It becomes a natural, integrated topic."
Citizenship convener Susan Arnott has set up an exchange of letters between the pupils of Gwen-gwere and Dean Park. As the Malawi school has no electricity, emails are not possible, but the Edinburgh pupils are keen to pursue this "befriending" communication. They have been addressed on a video by Gwengwere's head, and have seen Miss Arnott teaching a class there. Malawian objects are dotted around the school. The link is one the pupil citizenship committee wishes to push forward. If possible, they want to meet their African peers.
Last year, Miss Arnott organised an Africa Week. This year, the school wanted to expand on it, so this term different classes are holding different weeks.
It has taken Dean Park Primary three years to merge into its new faculty system, while negotiating the ideas proposed by A Curriculum for Excellence. The structure is now formalised and the school is far down a road others may choose to explore.
At first glance, the approach may seem radical, even "revolutionary". But in Dr Russell's view, they are not so much entering a brave new world as going back to basics - or at least returning to one of the cherished myths of Scottish education.
"Education is more than a bag of skills," he says. "It is about educating the whole child, what was traditionally called 'the lad o' pairts', the child from whatever background who could turn his or her hand to the many different problems and opportunities that life offers. That's what integration means, and that's what we're aspiring to."
At the centre of the model are the four capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence: confident individuals; responsible citizens; successful learners; and effective contributors.
These are addressed directly through four faculties, which integrate English, maths, science, personal and social development, technologies, religious and moral education, expressive arts, modern languages, health and wellbeing, and social subjects.
Each faculty has an expert convener. These are classroom teachers, one a principal teacher.
Individual subjects often answer the "what" question underpinning the curriculum, but do not address the "why" in learning. So the faculties effectively provide the "integrative mechanism" at the centre of ACfE. The "crowded curriculum" is reduced by seeing the subjects as a necessary condition for learning (skills) and the faculty model as a sufficient condition (applied content).
Ecology: green flag, eco garden, recycling, energy conservation, global warming
Enterprise: Windows on the World, business and education links, celebrating success, school galleries and performances, external events
Citizenship: global teacher, fair trade, Gwengwere link and council, Operation Christmas, anti-racism, anti-bullying, pupil council
Health: accreditation, cycling proficiency, dietary studies and school catering, emotional literacy, junior road safety, sex education, personal safety, playground facilities, sport, drugs awareness
RATIONING, RECYCLING AND REAPING THE BENEFITS FROM THE PAST
During a World War Two project, Dean Park Primary ran an "Evacuation Day". Pupils were the evacuees and families played the "foster families".
Through the enterprise, pupils produced posters, invitations and tickets for friends and family. They made their own gas-mask boxes and evacuee labels, they sourced appropriate clothing (and from charity shops) and packed their suitcases with the minimum of articles.
Meeting their "foster families", they would clear up after lunch and perhaps play peevers or skip, or play with diabolos, a peerie or a gird and cleik.
Sandwiches packed for the journey were wrapped in brown paper and a wartime lunch was a baked potato with tinned food (spam, sausages and beans). No chocolate or crisps or modern packaging was allowed.
In health and safety, they looked at the effects of rationing, at diets old and new, at how people protected themselves (gas masks and so on) and at what happened to the injured. Comparisons were made with the NHS today.
Under the ecology umbrella, scarcity of resources arises. How we grew (and grow) things. Pupils looked at the work of the Land Army and the need for self-sufficiency. Recycling came to the fore (from brown paper to bandages).
The day ended with an enterprising and entertaining concert of songs and dances from the war by the pupils. A collection was taken for Erskine Homes for war veterans.