Keeping the lid on a can of worms

17th July 1998 at 01:00
Freda MacGregor reflects on the challenge of implementing the 5-14 environmental studies programme

ONEOF the advantages of teaching in an island school is that wonderful resources for environmental studies are all around.

The island of Lismore, in Argyll, has unique flora and fauna, a rich history, interesting transport links (we need a new ferry) and a rich cultural heritage. It is also possible, with careful planning and a canny regard for the weather, to visit sites on the mainland and welcome visitors to school to give talks.

Admittedly a multi-composite class with a staff complement of 1.5 or less presents its own challenges for environmental studies. Before the 5-14 programme, we worked on a four-year rolling programme, covering social studies, health education, science and technology. We had plenty of fun, like the time we conducted a small mammals survey, with live traps provided by Scottish Natural Heritage.

The only casualty was myself: having warned the children not to put their fingers into the trap if it contained an animal, I did just that and was promptly bitten by a short-tailed vole.

An otter watch was less dangerous. We put a notice in the island shop asking people to tell us about sightings. There were many responses and the children were able to record them on an island map and build up a picture of where the animals were. It also emerged from talking to local people that the otters had "runs" overland that had existed for years.

Another activity was mounting an "Edwardian exhibition" as part of a history topic. An appeal for artefacts produced enough period objects to fill the classroom. The children researched and catalogued all the items and we opened our "museum" for a week.

Revisiting topics after four years in our rolling programme would, we hoped, allow for pupils to develop their skills and concepts. We thought we had got it fairly right - then along came the 5-14 environmental studies document.

Along with the rest of the country we gasped, groaned and exclaimed. I did a quick audit of where our school was at. We were well ahead in information technology, thanks to Argyll and Bute's commitment to resourcing the small schools in this field. In many cases we were following good practice, but we needed to bring it into much sharper focus and ensure the progression of skills that 5-14 highlighted.

I once heard the document referred to as "a can of worms". It is an interesting thought that a can of worms in the right place can be quite a good thing. I am trying to imagine my environmental studies programme as a garden in need of turning over.

But all schools, especially small ones, must modify the document to suit their individual needs. Allowances must be made to accommodate what is actually achievable, given the massive spectrum of the document and the teaching time available.

New technology undoubtedly has a part to play. I can manage the P6-S2 split best by using video conferencing to enable my P7 pupil to work with others of his age on the "bridging topic" required by the local secondary schools, but up to P7 he will work with the rest of the class, because I can teach more effectively that way. By then I hope he will have become a more independent learner.

I do not think we are fully implementing the document yet, but we are continuing to make progress. In its terms the "variety and characteristics of living things" are all around us, and folk here on the island take a lively interest in what goes on in (and out) of school. "It's great the chances they get these days," observed one woman when we met on the road to the shore, my charges scampering ahead to terrify some poor wee creatures in the rock pools.

Yes, it is good - and necessary - because I want to use 5-14 environmental studies to teach my pupils to understand and value all aspects of their environment. As adults they will need to have "developed informed attitudes" to all kinds of situations in the world, and they may well have to use all the skills they have learned to help keep it a good place to live in.

Freda MacGregor is headteacher of Lismore Primary, Argyll

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