Eleanor Caldwell examines a custom-made certificate course encouraging teachers to learn together.
The aim of "creating a climate of collegiate learning" carries overtones of Americanised edu- theory, but a more brass tacks approach emerges when teachers return to their studies.
At St Modan's High School in Stirling every teacher can now study towards a modular-based Certificate in Pupil Support. This follows a restructuring of support departments, drawing all 13 guidance, learning support and senior teachers into a new pupil support team.
Designed by St Modan's headteacher Frank Lennon and the professional studies department of St Andrew's College (now part of Glasgow University), the certificate is based on the school's development plan. Each of the four modules is delivered over nine in-house sessions after school.
Frank Lennon points out the advantages of this in terms of teachers' time and also its comparative financial efficiency. Participation is voluntary: a third of his staff have now completed module 1. Both he and his deputy May Sweeney are also taking part.
Sessions in module 1 (Learning and Teaching for the 21st Century), range from the distilled educational to the overtly practical. "The Learning Revolution", for example, includes "an introduction to the genesis and contexts of current thinking about learning" while "The Effective Teacher" focuses on "promoting positive attitudes to learning" and offers "an introduction to conflict management".
Mr Lennon says all areas of the course emphasise tasks that relate directly to St Modan's. This whole-school approach - bridging departmental divides - gives staff a sense of ownership and develops an effective commonality of approach, he says.
May Sweeney says the certificate aims to "encourage generalism rather that specialism" and allows teachers to step outside tightly-defined subject roles to develop the ethos of teaching the pupil. Both teachers emphasise the importance of accrediting staff for work on personal development.
Walter Humes, head of educational studies at Glasgow University, who, with lecturer Valerie Friel, developed the certificate, says the "customised" approach offers an innovative way of linking curriculum, staff development, pupil motivation, achievement and development of the participating institution itself. "We want to be responsive to the staff's perceptions of the priorities in their own school and build up a community."
He adds: "A school is only an effective learning organisation when all in it are learning. I hope staff are getting a lot out of the certificate personally and are feeding it back into the development of the school."
Participation in the course gives teachers Scottish Masters points which can be credited for further MEd or postgraduate study. However, both Mr Lennon and Mrs Sweeney are keen to point out that some teachers with particular areas of interest have "dropped into" just one or two of the module 1 sessions.
Assessment is based on a 3,000-word assignment.
One of the participants, art teacher Audrey McMenemy, enthuses about the value of module 1 which she has just completed. "It has heightened my awareness of everything in the classroom and has made me think about lots of different ways of learning." She chose to focus on an area in which she has lacked confidence: the most effective use of language when working on the critical analysis of art and design.
After working with an English teacher, she has begun to introduce new methods of leading discussion and group work in class. An added bonus was pupils' reactions. "They were genuinely interested in hearing all about it and asking me how I was getting on with it. It's been really useful." But the assignment deadline of March 19 has come at a particularly busy time in the school year.
Next session two half-modules will run concurrently - "Support for Learning Difficulties and Able Pupils", together with "Values in Education and Pastoral Care". Mr Lennon believes this combination will support St Modan's philosophy, integrating pastoral care and academic teaching.
"We're working hard at raising teachers' self-esteem and we're showing that an improved professional culture goes hand-in-hand with raising pupil attainment," he says.