Pioneers of learning tackle big issues

27th May 2011 at 01:00
A group of early adopter schools is showing how Curriculum for Excellence can break down many traditional barriers.

Collapsing divides is the key to delivering Curriculum for Excellence, a group of headteachers picked out for their schools' cutting- edge practice has shown.

Whether those gaps divide pupil and teacher, primary and secondary, teacher and inspector, or school and the wider world, the principle is one that binds the Early Adopters Group for the new curriculum.

The group was formed in 2009 after Scottish Government officials scanned the country for schools that were excelling with CfE. Its members have met only a few times, but it is more than an occasional gathering to swap good ideas.

One of them, Monifieth High headteacher Richard Coton, sees the initiative as part of a landmark nationwide movement to "create a learning system that's self-sustaining".

That abstract concept is personified by a single-minded group of his S2 pupils. They wanted Monifieth to become a Fair Trade school, but the first Mr Coton knew of it was when he received a memo from the pupils; no member of staff had prodded them forward.

When four girls came to see him earlier this month, "they deposited a massive lever arch file, meticulously organised, in front of them - they got everything they asked for".

Such confidence is the result of several years' work, during which the mantra of "doing school together" has taken hold at Monifieth. Pupils have their own senior management team, which meets with the equivalent teacher body for what Mr Coton describes as "genuine round-table discussion".

When pupil senior management hear of an interesting piece of staff training, they ask if they can take part. "Within classes we're constantly encouraged to form our own opinions and take the initiative, so we're comfortable discussing things with staff," says S6 pupil Craig McKay.

Just as the gap between pupils and senior management has shrunk at Monifieth, so the divide between early adopters and school inspectors has narrowed. HMIE has played a central role in the group, with inspectors assigned to schools as "critical friends", far removed from their traditional role as dispassionate observers.

Monifieth can ring its "inspector partner" at any time, and her perspective has added new dimensions to its work. The Angus school has emphasised pupil leadership for some time, but she asked if it monitored pupils after they left school. As a result, staff are in the early stages of assessing how ex-pupils put leadership skills into practice in the outside world.

The early adopters - who were given a total of pound;8,800 by the Government to fund their work together - are accelerating away from the stereotype of school as a place of hermetic learning, towards the world at large. Global issues have been to the fore at meetings, which, crucially, have taken place at the headquarters of the International Futures Forum in Aberdour, Fife. This non-profit organisation grapples with the "seemingly intractable, complex challenges that face our generation", such as climate change, radioactive waste management, city regeneration, suicide - and the future of learning.

The IFF encourages participants to fend off "cynicism and despair" by stepping back from day-to-day tasks to consider tensions between the system they work in and the one they aspire to, using global trends as prompts. Other IFF clients have included Shell, BT, Japan's Sasakawa Peace Foundation and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.

"In education we've almost isolated ourselves from what is out there - the business world, industry and so on - where they're taking forward transformational change much more regularly than we are," says Val Corry, headteacher at Balfron High. "Having the opportunity to work alongside these really forward-looking, global people, the IFF, has really reshaped my thinking."

Balfron, along with other members, is keen to play down depiction of the Early Adopters Group as any sort of elite, stressing that many other schools are coming up with comparable innovations. Its participation builds on ideas it has honed for years, notably around personal support, says Mrs Corry.

"Curriculum for Excellence isn't just about a new curriculum - it's having a system that's based around values and has an effective personal support service," she adds.

Every teacher has responsibility for pastoral care, but no one has a caseload of more than 30; in other schools principal teachers may have as many as 250 cases. Balfron is influenced by the Human Scale education movement, which espouses small-scale learning communities. There are nine "schools" within the school - three per house - and teachers work in small teams, rather than departments or faculties. "In a big organisation of nearly 1,000 people, there can be that sense of almost being lost," says Mrs Corry. "Here, everybody is known well by someone."

The International Futures Forum, with its experience of working with "big companies where things can go badly wrong" had "almost given us a crystal ball" to reduce the risk of failing with ambitious changes, she adds.

One innovation, starting in January 2013, will be S3 "masterclasses". For three-and-a-half hours a week, over 20 weeks, each pupil will attend in- depth sessions covering four areas of his or her choice not covered in other classes.

Suggested masterclasses so far include: mathematics and couture; biotechnology; seismology; working with national parks; anamorphic art and mathematics; international development; Scotland's place in Europe; astronomy, and being an entrepreneur.

The idea is to learn in a deeper and more creative way than usual for S3, by exploring areas about which pupils are passionate. They may have to step outside school: it is hoped that masterclasses will lead to stronger bonds with employers, colleges and universities.

"Education is no longer just about educating a child in a particular building, with teachers," Mrs Corry observes.

Another member of the group, St Luke's High in Barrhead, has, like Balfron, chipped away at barriers between pupils and teachers. This has helped it to rank among the top 20 Scottish state secondaries by attainment, despite having far more pupils entitled to free school meals than any of the other 19.

An audit of teacher views, for example, threw up discrepancies between staff and pupils. "There was confusion about success criteria - pupils weren't seeing how the feedback they got in class related to them," says Adele Simpson, English teacher and learning and teaching co-ordinator (an unpromoted post that exists in every faculty, to ensure consistent approaches across the school).

CPD was organised specifically to close such gaps, and offered to all staff in St Luke's and the rest of the cluster.

Larbert High headteacher Jon Reid has sought to bridge the divide between primary and secondary school. He became involved in the Early Adopters Group while at Edinburgh's Drummond Community High, whose plans for Curriculum for Excellence were among the first to be published.

There, he wanted to ease the move to secondary school by immersing P7 pupils from the three cluster primaries: they spent one day a week at Drummond in the first term, two days a week after the October break, and three days a week after Christmas.

In the same way, Anne McColl, head of Kilbowie Early Education and Childcare Centre, in Clydebank, has been smoothing the path from nursery to secondary by showing colleagues in other sectors that pre-school children are capable of far more than is often realised. She recalls one four-year-old boy who, given the freedom to operate a video camera, announced to a surprised member of staff that he had worked out how to add animation to his clips.

Just as with pre-school children, the capabilities of special needs children have often been under-appreciated. St Andrew's School in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, runs many activities which in the past would have been uncommon in special schools. To tie in with this month's Scottish parliamentary elections, all of its 100 pupils - irrespective of how complex their needs - organised a mock election.

"Curriculum for Excellence validates the work we do and takes it further, in that we can be innovative and take risks with how our children learn," says headteacher Jackie Burnett. "It makes teaching innovative; it gives leadership to the kids."

Some senior pupils are training staff in how to use iPod programmes and apps. The vast range of apps for portable media players allows pupils to explore whatever it is that interests them; one of the most popular identifies stars in the night sky.

"They know what's above them, and they know what's outside," says Mrs Burnett.

She also stresses the importance of the school's links with employers. Work experience is more sophisticated than in the past, with placements covering car valeting, charity shops and a library: "Now we share information with the employers, we share targets. Before it was about a social experience, now it's much more skills-based."

A 2009 HMIE report, which rated St Andrew's "excellent" for learners' experiences, found pupils were expressing opinions about where they would like to go when they left school. Almost all young people were "very active in improving their school", thanks to constant encouragement to make their own choices in classes.

The "unusual" opportunity for a special school to work so closely with primary and secondary heads from across Scotland has bolstered the school's work, says Mrs Burnett: "It's helped me channel all this energy in the right ways and make sure I'm taking people with me and not just charging on."

Rosebank Primary in Dundee has made a virtue of relinquishing control to even its youngest pupils. They get used to moving around six areas covering various topics such as literacy, construction and role-playing. Within each area, the aims are the same but pupils choose how to get there. Some may be more visually-minded, others preferring to write down ideas; an array of boxes, toys, jiglets, paper and other materials is designed to coax them toward the same end.

Head Dawn Stanfield, who joined the Early Adopters Group while at Hamilton's Glenlee Primary, says teachers should not feel they need to know everything; it is more important that they and their pupils have a shared curiosity: "If pupils ask the questions, they want to find out the answers."

With ideas flowing between staff and pupils - rather than knowledge trickling down from the teachers - Mrs Stanfield hopes that as pupils grow up and life presents obstacles, "they may not know all the answers, but they will know how to find them out".

The door may be open to Mr Coton's office at Monifieth High, but not all pupils have the confidence to step through and make demands. True progress, he believes, will have been made when any pupil might appear at any time. At Balfron High, Mrs Corry takes a similar view: "That's the Holy Grail - if we can have all young people taking responsibility for their actions and learning."


Critics of Curriculum for Excellence risk "being exiled to North Korea", according to David Cameron, Stirling's former education director turned consultant.

Education professionals need to engage in a "better quality of discussion" about CfE, he told a Tapestry Partnership conference in Glasgow this month.

The views of teachers who are broadly supportive of the changes but concerned about the detail are being lost, he said.

Mr Cameron also warned that CfE could be "derailed by industrial action"; the reception given to the McCormac review of teacher employment in September would be key. There were still teachers who felt "frightened and besieged", and unwilling to take the risks required, he added.

Discussion around CfE should look at why it had "not yet exposed the failings of the current system".

"We're reluctant to talk about the conspiracy we've entered into to preserve the status quo," said Mr Cameron, one of the experts charged by the Scottish Government with rewriting and simplifying CfE documents.

He knew of one local authority which did not want to adopt CfE "for fear that it will impact negatively on their exam success rate".


While the Early Adopters Group is bursting with tales of schools making great strides with Curriculum for Excellence, researchers strike a tone that is more nuanced and at times pessimistic.

"The road to CfE seems to be a rocky one," says Stirling University's Mark Priestley (pictured). "There are still many uncertainties about the purposes of the curriculum, what constitutes appropriate methodologies for realising these, and how schools should change their systems to embrace the new ideas and methods."

Dr Priestley finds much to praise in approaches at Monifieth High, which he evaluated last year, but he is less sanguine about progress nationwide.

"Schools inevitably face enormous challenges for a number of reasons," he says. "The widely recommended implementation strategy encourages an audit approach, ticking off the outcomes and experiences against existing practice and tweaking where necessary.

"A real danger is that we lose sight of the big educational questions that underpin CfE, being driven instead by more immediate concerns such as pressures to raise attainment and multiple accountabilities."

Those pressures escalated at a time of diminishing resources and falling staff numbers, says Dr Priestley, although Monifieth High headteacher Richard Coton offers a counter argument: while the current climate may delay one or two initiatives in the school, he believes that straitened times often lead to innovation.

"The real surprise is not that some schools are failing to keep up with the CfE wave, but that so many teachers are managing to ride the crest of the wave successfully, despite the challenges," Dr Priestley says.

Another siren voice in the debate is that of Niall MacKinnon, headteacher of Plockton Primary, who recently published a paper which argued that CfE was hamstrung by Scotland's "lost sense of the nature of evaluation as process".

Amid a "labyrinthine matrix of attainment targets", he wrote in the international journal Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, "Scotland became a world leader at fixed specifications, judgment, control and silencing the professional voice".

Curriculum for Excellence was "blocked" because these mechanisms remained in place. Scottish schools were now evaluated against "indicators of progress" agreed between HMIE and the CfE management board, contradicting a recommendation of the 2007 Crerar Review that audits should place emphasis on "outcomes" not "process measures", he argues.

For all the promise of liberation by CfE, he fears Scottish teachers will still be looking over their shoulders towards "the ever-feared, ever- changing `what-are-they-looking-fors?'"


Auchterhouse Primary, Angus

Rosebank Primary, Dundee

St Timothy's Primary, Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire

Overton Primary, Greenock, Inverclyde

Borestone Primary, Stirling

Gylemuir Primary, Edinburgh

Woodhead Primary, Hamilton, South Lanarkshire

Kilbowie Early Education and Childcare Centre, Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire

Kersland School, Paisley, Renfrewshire

St Andrew's School, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire

Hawick High, Borders

Fortrose Academy, Highland

Balfron High, Stirling

Kirkland High, Fife

Nicolson Institute, Stornoway, Western Isles

Larbert High, Falkirk

St Luke's High, Barrhead, East Renfrewshire

Kirkcudbright Academy, Dumfries and Galloway

Charleston Academy, Inverness, Highland

Biggar High, South Lanarkshire

Hillhead High, Glasgow

Bannerman High, Glasgow

Monifieth High, Angus

Cardinal Newman High,

Bellshill, North Lanarkshire

*Some heads became involved while at other schools.

Original headline: Pioneers of learning strike out to tackle the big issues

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