Innovation + engagement = results

19th September 2008 at 01:00
A look at one secondary which has transformed its way of working under the Curriculum for Excellence

It is no secret that the first reaction of many secondary teachers to A Curriculum for Excellence was: "Confident individuals and responsible citizens are nothing to do with me, pal - I teach my subject."

Particular types of teacher took this line more strongly than others, so it's a sure sign of real progress with the new curriculum that even the maths teachers are coming on board. "We've been getting our pupils to look at wider aspects of mathematics," says Keith Edwards, maths teacher at St Margaret's High in Airdrie. "They've been working in groups to name their top five mathematicians. We wanted to know the mathematicians' backgrounds, their hopes and fears, families and social lives, the stimulus that got them started. We looked at Scots first, then around the world."

St Margaret's staff have been actively engaged with ACfE from the start, says Catriona Sheridan, depute head. A wide range of innovative ideas has been introduced, amid debate and discussion, and they are being tweaked, tested and developed. "I don't think it's the finished article yet," says John Callan, principal teacher of physics and biology. "But we are doing things that are different and new - and we are giving people ownership of their learning."

Innovations include cross-curricular projects, new ways of looking at learning, a slimmed-down S1-3 timetable, option choices at the end of S1, vocational courses from the end of S2 and, in particular, three years at secondary that are all about learning and not at all about exams.

"We won't produce a nation of thinkers, doers and communicators if we continue teaching to pass exams," says Linda Jamieson, principal teacher of art and design. "It's just so driven. As teachers, we are all passionate about our subjects. We need time to share that passion with the kids and to discuss what we're doing with colleagues, free from the pressure of exams."

Grant Creoney (S5) is a product of the shift towards learner-centred approaches at St Margaret's. A confident lad who would "love to be a professional drummer" one day, Grant talks articulately, surrounded by school staff and strangers, about life, learning and leaving school. But he is a young man with a secret.

"I found it difficult to speak in front of people, especially a whole class. I was really shy. Working in groups on a music and enterprise project made a huge difference to me. We had to talk to people we had never met. We had to work with them to get things done. We had to speak at assembly. It gave me confidence."

An important factor in staff and pupil receptiveness to the new curriculum has been co-operative learning, says Ms Sheridan. "Most of our teachers have been trained in it, or are going to be. It has paid dividends. Co- operative learning has gone hand-in-hand with A Curriculum for Excellence. Pupils are encouraged to develop their talents, to work together, to be independent thinkers."

Particularly at times of transition, the structured group work of co- operative learning helps build supportive relationships, says Chris Miller (S5). "If somebody has a weakness, they can discuss it in the group, use each other's abilities, and get help to understand what they're doing. It's much harder to ask for help from a teacher in front of a whole class, if you think they've got it but you're not catching on."

To make all this work well in the secondary school - particularly the S1-3 focus on individualised learning - pupil preparation needs to be pushed back to the primary, say St Margaret's staff. "They are now making option choices at the end of S1 after just 10-week tasters in the sciences and social studies," says Mr Callan. "That means we have to get more involved in the later years of primary, so it becomes more of a fluid transition to secondary."

This is already happening to some extent, says Ms Sheridan. "Maths, English, science and RE teachers have gone into the primaries and taught from January to May. We would make it longer if we had the budget and staffing, and other subjects would love to get involved too."

With option choices at the end of S1, teachers have to adjust a three- sessions-a-week course to younger learners and different learning aims, says Kenneth McMahon, principal teacher of music. "At first, we treated them like a Standard grade set. We soon pulled back, put thoughts of certification aside and concentrated on developing skills. What a difference that made to attainment."

There is another very appealing aspect to teaching second and third-year pupils who have selected your subject but are not yet focused on passing exams, says Helen Parker, PT business education and enterprise. "You can develop skills and new ideas that you've picked up during CPD, without feeling the pressure of the time it takes to get things working or prepare resources. Pupils then gain the benefits at the time and in later years."

A pleasant surprise about the way the new St Margaret's curriculum has been working, says Carol Quay, PT support for learning, is the seriousness with which pupils have been making option choices at the end of S1. "We were brave to give them a free choice of subjects (beyond maths, English, PE and PSE). There was a lot of debate and disagreement. We were concerned they might pick easy options that would close doors behind them. But we worked with them and their parents and that largely did not happen."

The new curriculum is clearly still work in progress at St Margaret's High. Staff there talk about wanting more time and resources to do everything dreamt up by creative teachers and students. They also speak with considerable enthusiasm about huge benefits already to learning and teaching.

In the end, it's hard to get away from the maths, a subject vast numbers of Scottish students have hated, feared and failed to follow. If A Curriculum for Excellence works with maths, it will work with anything.

"Keith is so passionate about his subject that even I want to get involved," says Linda Jamieson. "And I was rotten at maths at school."

New projects are being planned, says Mr Edwards. "The whole second-year will work in groups on cross-curricular activities with PE and science. They will analyse the performance of sportspeople. They will design kitchens and classrooms. They'll look at the four-colour problem and prime numbers. What's the latest research, the links with the real world? They will prepare reports and presentations.

"We are going to do it with all 250 second-year pupils. You can do maths like this with all the pupils. They love it." forexcellencesharingpracticesecondary stmargaretshighschoolintroduction.asp aboutlearningcollaborativelearningresearch rscollaborativelearning.asp

Diary date

The Scottish Learning Festival has transformed itself, in a couple of years, from a feast of fun for techies to an essential date in the diary for anyone interested in major educational developments. A Curriculum for Excellence is about as major as developments get.

An important message to all schools and teachers, says national coordinator May Sweeney, is that the latest document, Building the Curriculum 3, published in June, has taken a giant step beyond the long period of consultation and engagement that preceded it.

"We've been picking up some confusion, perhaps because it was published at the same time as the consultation on qualifications. The two documents have a different status.

"Building the Curriculum 3 is not consultative. It sets out expectations on authorities and schools - which should be ready to put them into practice by August 2009."

Another part of the process that is well beyond consultation, Mrs Sweeney points out, is trialling the draft experiences and outcomes. While reluctant to anticipate the findings of these trials, she conveys no impression that they might lead to significant change. So a clear message is that schools and teachers should not be misled by the word "draft" into waiting for something officially stamped "final".

"Over 300 schools, in every authority, have been trialling the curriculum areas and feeding back views. The groups of writers are meeting to study this and see if they need to adjust the outcomes or provide elaboration, exemplification or continuing professional development - which some people are asking for.

"This will be fed into the final experiences and outcomes, which will be published early in 2009."

"Any teacher across Scotland can take just one outcome if they want, and try it out in their classroom. We would urge schools and teachers to do just that and to give us feedback through the website," she says.

"Those that get involved in this way will have done a lot of thinking for themselves, and will be in a good place to incorporate the final outcomes into their practice."

Some schools have made great strides already and their good practice is being spotlighted on A Curriculum for Excellence website.

"We updated the website at the end of August," says Mrs Sweeney. "Until then, case studies were broadly about values, purposes and principles. We are now much more specific. So the new studies are schools that demonstrate important features of Building the Curriculum 3. They are St Margaret's High (see left), Glenlee Primary and Balfron High. For each of these, we provide text, videos and pedagogy papers."

What these schools have in common is that they got engaged early, says Mrs Sweeney.

"A big message of the OECD report by Richard Teese is that change has to come from schools and local authorities, rather than from central direction. I've seen it from the beginning of A Curriculum for Excellence - right back to the aims, purposes and principles. Schools that started discussing it, or made a small change in practice to see how it worked, are schools that are now reaping the benefits."


The Scottish Learning Festival is at the SECC, Glasgow on September 24 and 25. Attended by over 6,000 teachers, it is funded by the Scottish Government and organised by Learning and Teaching Scotland, with The TESS as media partner. There are over 170 seminars, some in twilight sessions so that teachers who cannot get away from school can attend.

The accompanying exhibition by emap education has over 150 exhibitors. Entrance is free.


T 0870 421 1938


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