Journey's end

28th March 1997 at 00:00
The new round of education budget cuts announced by councils earlier this month will in many parts of the country lead to fewer teachers in the classroom, bigger classes and reduced provision of cultural, artistic and sporting activities.

One area likely to feel the brunt is in the provision of peripatetic, specialist teachers whose expertise in subjects such as art and design, music, home economics and physical education is regarded by many class teachers not only as an enhancement of the core curriculum but as a vital part of it. This is perhaps especially true in primary schools implementing the 5-14 guidelines.

But while a significant reduction in specialist provision would affect all primary schools, those which will be hit hardest are small, rural primary schools where the few base staff, and the pupils, arguably have more to lose if such provision is withdrawn.

Fintry Primary School in Stirling Council is a case in point. With a school roll of 66, Fintry has three class teachers, with the head also teaching three and a half days a week. It has four specialist teachers, two of whom (music and PE) come in half a day a week, and two (art and design and home economics) who teach half a day a fortnight.

"All specialists are equally important and valued here,'' says headteacher Gill Friel, "and their input is central to the whole teaching ethos of the school."

While Fintry has been given no indication of cuts, and Friel and her staff "are being positive about it'', she acknowledges that "without our specialist teachers the whole quality of our provision might be endangered and the level of staff development would be lost".

She adds: "The whole pool of ideas is widened and deepened by specialists.For example, pupils and class teachers get to relate to real artists and musicians."

This is a point reiterated by David Smith, chair of the school board, who points to "the great value in the flow of visitors and the exchange of ideas especially in a small school with a small staff where you might expect less expertise".

But Smith adds: "Schools have to be hard-nosed in their choices in their development plans. If you need specialists to enhance the school, it may be that you can only afford a specialist for two or three years to build expertise among the base staff and not use that specialist again. But problems would arise when staff leave who have such specialist knowledge."

But this perhaps presupposes that among your base staff are colleagues capable of being trained in, say, art.

Fintry is, in fact, noted for its art and design work. An exhibition of its colourful and vibrant output has been on show at the Scotland Street School Museum of Education in Glasgow since the beginning of the year. It includes books written and illustrated by the pupils.

But this art and design work is not regarded as an extra. It is central to the ethos of the school.

"Art and design is used as a stimulus for a lot of the work in the school and is a fundamental part of the curriculum,'' according to the school's peripatetic art and design specialist, Patricia Godley. "It is not just used to illustrate writing work. It can be used to stimulate writing. It is central to technology and science, as in the case of observational drawing, as well as to language and the expressive arts."

An example of this integrated approach is in the production of books. "We believe that children's writing should be for an audience and not simply for a jotter that ends up in a bin,'' says Friel. "So we make books. This gives purpose to the children's work and creates an audience. It gives them a wonderful sense of the value of their work. And what is the purpose of writing if it is not to communicate?"

A recent school project on the Jacobites was begun by making large-scale puppets and figures with the pupils, then writing histories, poetry and adventure stories about them. "It gives them something concrete to write about,'' says Godley. "They get a great sense of history, creating real costumes, real details. I think that's a genuine dynamic."

Godley and the other specialist teachers plan with class teachers at the beginning of each term the balance of learning experience for the children - in keeping with 5-14 guidelines - from detailed individual projects to large-scale projects. "We have a very flexible approach and can collapse the timetable to tackle larger projects in which the whole school is involved,'' she says.

This flexibility is "one of the joys of a small school", says Friel.

Such bigger projects have included creating bright external murals around the school entrance and on the sides of extension classrooms. The school's involvement in the Scotland Street exhibition led them to study the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh who designed the school in which the museum is housed. They are now designing a Mackintosh mural for the front of their own school.

"We want the children to create the environment they work in as far as possible,'' says Godley. "They create the murals, decorate the halls and classrooms. Nothing is executed for them. They're part of the creative process and the decision-making.."

According to Friel this has an important impact on discipline. "If children can enhance or even generate their surroundings, they're less likely to vandalise them. It helps to create a caring and belonging ethos and gives the children a sense that their work is valued. And that increases the quality of their work overall."

The centrality of specialist art and design input is, literally, everywhere to be seen in Fintry, from the external murals and entrance hall to the dining room, library and individual classrooms. But the work of other specialist teachers is equally integrated.

One example is the annual "open day'', when parents and members of the local community are invited to the school. This year the school will become a "heritage centre'', focusing on local connections with the Romans and the Wars of Independence, two projects the school is working on. Home economics specialist Anne Ross works with the pupils on preparing Roman food and clothing, and plans with the children the materials they will use for the production of a fabric collage on the Wars of Independence. Currently they are experimentin g with natural dyes that will reflect their rural surroundings.

The open days include workshops for visitors led by the pupils themselves,a culmination of specialist and class teachers' planning over the year. "Teaching reinforces what they are learning,'' says Friel. "The best way to learn is to teach. "

This teachinglearning dynamic was recently demonstrated at a school Burns Supper held in nearby Culcreuch Castle where the pupils not only performed some of Burns's songs, but taught many of their guests Scottish country dancing.

A teacher contributing to numerous different schools in an area must be very flexible and organised, as Gill Friel stresses: "Good teaching is done when you plan carefully and then move away from the plan, following the children's learning. Flexibility is the key, and in many ways specialist teachers are the key to flexibility."

But how would Ross counter the suggestion that a half-day input a week or a fortnight can have only minimum impact? She answers with a broad grin. "Come and see for yourself."

I already had. But perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the work of specialist teachers and to the integrated approach of Fintry is given in a school leaver's poem, 'Bucket of Colours':

"There's a bucket full of colours on that wall,

All are clear and bright,

Burst of colours, exploded

So busy, so full of life,

Everytime I look, there's

something never seen before,

To stop and think I'm leaving it,

Makes me not want to go"

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