Glasgow is showing the way ahead in managing education. By strengthening the links between schools in local clusters and devolving power to the professionals, they are making the best of their resources and pupils' potential. Seamless 3-18 schooling is proving a success, writes Raymond Ross.
Two years ago Glasgow Education Services launched its Learning Communities initiative with pilot schemes in Eastbank and St Mungo academies and their associated primaries and pre-five establishments. Last year it widened the scheme to cover the north-east quadrant of the city, bringing in Smithycroft, Whitehill and St Andrew's secondaries and their associated schools. Now 21 per cent of the city's educational establishments are involved in learning communities.
The idea is to offer a seamless education to Glasgow's young people from age three to 18, "from nursery to bursary" as one headteacher puts it, by the schools in each learning community pooling their resources, expertise and experience, thereby easing transitions from pre-school to primary and primary to secondary.
"Learning communities are part of the strategy of Glasgow's education services to raise attainment. Raising attainment is their primary purpose", says depute director of education George Gardner. Professor Eric Wilkinson of Glasgow University will present an evaluation report on the project in September.
"We are very pleased with their progress so far," Mr Gardner says. "Personally speaking, I think learning communities are the way forward for the city, but it will be a council decision whether and when all Glasgow schools will adopt this model and adapt it to their local circumstances."
Local circumstances are perhaps the key to individual learning communities. Smithycroft Learning Community's principal, David Cummings, who is also headteacher of Smithycroft Secondary, says: "We have learned from St Mungo's and Eastbank's experiences but each learning community is different in emphasis.
"We are focusing on embracing attainment across the community and are beginning to move on pre-five initiatives and the social inclusion agenda. For example, we have established a child support team, which includes staff from all three sectors - an idea which came from Eastbank - which looks at youngsters who might need more services or external help.
"We look at common concerns, such as behaviour management, and staff development in areas like that," says Mr Cummings.
"We find that the pre-five sector is very good at spotting pupils with educational difficulties and we can use that expertise to the benefit of the primary and secondary sectors.
"We want to cater for pupils with moderate learning difficulties. We have two job-sharing education psychologists involved as well as a social worker."
The multi-agency approach is an important factor in a learning community. Sharing expertise, especially primary-secondary liaison, is another.
Implementation of the Glasgow 5-14 science programme, for example, has involved two Smithycroft science teachers not only in taking P7 classes in the seven primaries but also in passing on their specialist knowledge to the teachers.
A common approach to spelling and grammar has been worked out by the schools. The secondary's English department commits eight 80-minute sessions (known as curricular visits) to each primary, focusing on 5-14 writing.
A liaison guidance teacher interviews all P7 pupils transferring to Smithycroft, takes transition-based personal and social education classes in the associate primaries, delivers in-service training to primary colleagues, liaises with external agencies, attends future needs and review meetings and is involved in P7 extra-currcular activities. A personal and social development package has been devised for use from P6 to S2.
Each learning community has its own bursar, whose role is crucial in the sharing of resources.
Margaret Talent, the bursar for Smithycroft Learning Community, says: "I take the burden of the administrative and financial arrangements from the headteachers. I work in partnership with the 14 headteachers, from the secondary, seven primaries and six pre-five establishments. I'm a member of the senior management team in the secondary. I sit in on principal teachers' meetings. I'm also an adviser to the management group of headteachers. We all meet monthly with the principal.
"Each establishment has its own budget but we top slice the per capita and staff development budgets for the learning community. The result is that all the schools are working from a bigger pot and each can put in a bid for funds to forward the learning community plans in their own establishment."
The main aim is to promote a more efficient administrative system to everyone's benefit. "I'm here to release more time for pre-five heads to teach and allow primary and secondary senior management more time to evaluate learning and teaching," Ms Talent says.
There are more than 2,000 pupils, 140 teaching staff and 88 administrative, professional, technical and clerical staff involved in the Smithycroft Learning Community with a total budget of almost pound;5.8 million. Budget procedures are more robust, according to Ms Talent, and she can find cover for absence within the learning community pool.
"This should happen with class cover too in time," says Mr Cummings. "We would hope to have our own designated supply cover, particularly for the primaries."
Sharing resources provides practical help. A nursery which can't afford to hire a minibus can use the secondary school's vehicle. Mineral water, which is now an essential ingredient to "brain gym" but was previously beyond the smaller schools' budgets, is now supplied more cheaply because the communal buying power gets every school a better deal.
Maureen Grieve, headteacher of Littlehill Primary, the smallest school in the learning community, says: "The pooling of monies and the bidding system means everyone gains and that's important when you're the smallest school."
While raising attainment is the target, so is the future employment of Glasgow's young people.
"Looking after the youngster from nursery to bursary will hopefully help out with employment prospects," says Mr Cummings. "There are plenty of jobs in Glasgow, especially in building and in hospitality. But these jobs don't go to the young people of Glasgow, rather but to those from North Lanarkshire, East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire. One main function of the learning communities will be to give our young people the confidence and the skills to get these jobs."
The principal of Whitehill Learning Community in Dennistoun is Sandra Millar, headteacher of Alexandra Parade Primary, which is one of the biggest primaries in Glasgow, with 458 pupils. So far she is the only primary head appointed as a learning community principal.
She sees her role as "a quality co-ordinator" to group initiatives, seeing them through and seeing that the best is got out of them.
"It's a big workload and it was from the start a growing experience trying to look at things from a community viewpoint," she says.
"The principal does not replace the headteachers. I'm not responsible for how heads manage their own schools. I'm here to co-ordinate and support. I take responsibility for the top-sliced budget.
"I do, however, take the pastoral care of other headteachers very seriously. They can see me as a kind of step to the authority and consult with me on all sorts of things. I'm a sounding board for a lot of issues and it's a growing part of my job, especially for heads in the smaller establishments who have no management teams to consult with or to support them."
Mrs Millar sees learning communities as a natural extension to the focus on transitional development. "We have used the past year to improve the transition from nursery to primary and primary to secondary," she says.
"We took 100 P7s from across our six primary schools for a week's team building at Lochgoilhead outdoor education centre in the spring. It was a great success and they met many new friends they'll join up with again in S1.
"We also ran a writing competition for P7 pupils but held the prizegiving in Whitehill Secondary.
"You have to break down barriers when the idea is to create one new family," says Mrs Millar.
Whitehill has a nurseryprimary co-ordinator and this term sees the start of a pre-five buddy system, where a P6 pupil from the intended primary will meet with a pre-five pupil throughout the year.
New links between the primaries and secondary school have been developed, with an emphasis on information and communication technology, English, science, maths and physical education. A joint in-service day for secondary English and P4-P7 staff has been held, concentrating on strategies for teaching and support materials, and folios of P7 work are passed on to the secondary school. All the schools are on a computer network, training for primaries to use the independent learning system Successmaker has been completed and ICT workshops for all the primary staff have been held.
Other initiatives include an attendance council, whose aim is to increase attandance in all the schools and to which pupils are referred if there is a pattern of absence. "The council can focus on family problems from age three to 18. It's an open, considered approach which can home in on a family who might need social work support or identify that a child needs an educational psychologist," says Mrs Millar.
Whitehill has two child support teams who, in conjunction with community education, organised a six-week course on managing children's behaviour for parents over the summer, including workshops on children's health issues, nutrition, exploring feelings and anxieties, the importance of play and child safety in the home.
A parents and guardians group (which includes pupils and teachers) also has been formed to initiate community activities, such as a health festival this autumn.
"Another issue which has arisen is continuing professional development, particularly in relation to interview skills. We have 28 staff in a training team who will deliver workshops on interviews, CVs and job specifications. This has to be addressed because we have a lot of temporary contract staff with little interview experience," she says.
Outwith the classroom, non-teaching staff will for the first time receive annual reviews from the bursar to help meet their needs.
The main function of the learning community, however, remains to look at the lifelong learning of a child. It is, she says, about meeting their needs, particularly during transitional periods, and making sure they are progressing.
"At all times you have to be clear about priorities and costs, whether it is to do with attendance, curriculum, health promotion or personal and social education initiatives," says Mrs Millar. "The whole point of a learning community is that you have to see things through."
George Gardner and Eric Wilkinson will discuss some of the issues on learning communities exclusively in next week's TES Scotland