Early intervention is not always successful in closing the gap between good and poor performers, so East Ayrshire has loosened the reins on four primaries in the hope that more play and creativity in P1 classes will help. Douglas Blane reports
Experienced primary teachers all over Scotland are feeling stressed, over-loaded with paperwork and desperate to retire. Those taking part in Closing the Gap, an East Ayrshire two-year pilot project that has brought play and creativity back into the classroom, used to be no different. They are now.
"If we had made these changes 10 years ago I would look 20 years younger today," says Doris Allan, a P1 teacher at New Farm Primary in Kilmarnock. "Until this year I couldn't wait to retire. Now teaching is a joy."
The transformation has taken place because the P1 teachers in the four participating primary schools - New Farm and Loanhead in Kilmarnock, Drongan and Patna - have altered their teaching in ways their instincts and experience told them were right. A common theme was more play and less highly structured learning.
At New Farm, for example, the P1 children no longer have their own desks, but move around to different activity areas as the day progresses and the focus of learning shifts.
"Trying to force young children to sit still for long periods was driving us and them mad," says teacher Anna Adams. "Kids would be sucking their thumbs and rocking back and forth in their seats. It was painful to see."
The simple answer, supported by research showing that some children need to be active because they are "kinaesthetic learners", was to let the youngsters move. So the teachers did.
The aim of Closing the Gap is to combine research findings with the hard-won knowledge of teachers and channel them in the same direction to raise attainment.
The project began 18 months ago as an initiative to tackle the patchy nature of the outcomes of early intervention. While such measures have been largely successful, says Hilary MacGillivray, East Ayrshire's early intervention co-ordinator, sizeable numbers of youngsters have not been helped by it. Gaps between good and poor performers in literacy, in particular, tend to persist or widen in response to early intervention.
"The rich get richer while in some ways the poor get poorer. There remains the challenge of how to close the gap for those children whose progress leaves cause for concern," she says.
Ms MacGillivray approached Glasgow University, which brought modern research findings to the project, as well as a particular methodology that sets great store by practitioners' opinions.
Initial thoughts on forming nurture groups to help children who were not coping were discarded, partly because these make children aware who is considered less able and partly because teachers' feedback was that struggling kids were a symptom of more widespread and deep-seated problems in the classroom.
It wasn't that P1 classes did not work for a few children: they did not work well for most. However, some managed to cope with the difficulties better than others.
This message from the chalkface got strong backing from Glasgow University.
"There is evidence that too formal learning at too early a stage is unlikely to result in success for all young learners," says Louise Hayward, of the faculty of education.
"Early intervention was intended to close the gap, yet by the time some children are a few weeks into Primary 1 they are already saying 'I can't do reading.' " Young children develop physically, mentally and emotionally at different rates. The current emphasis on achievement does not let some of them do so at their natural pace. One teacher told the researchers of a little boy who was trying to write with "fingers like a bunch of bananas".
The pressure on schools and teachers to get results is now so strong that infants are not being given time to develop physically and mentally, say the researchers. Policy-makers in the UK are demanding academic achievement - in literacy and numeracy - from children at a younger age than most other countries. Too often it results in the opposite of what they intended.
"It is a serious concern that so early in their school lives many young people have already internalised models of failure," says Ms Hayward.
In response, the East Ayrshire teachers, with the enthusiastic support of their school managements, education authority and university researchers, have eased off the pressure and brought a little fun back into Primary 1.
"It used to be that you would go away at the weekend, to Skye maybe," says Ms Allan, "then come back and tell the kids what it was like. You'd read them a Katie Morag story. Before you knew it, you were doing a great lesson. You were enjoying it, so were the kids and they were learning all sorts of wonderful things.
"There's been no time for any of that in recent years because every minute of every day has to be planned and filled. You can't go off at tangents and do things the kids love. One of them might bring in a toy dinosaur and you have to say 'We don't have time to look at dinosaurs today.' " Bringing play and creativity back into P1 classes has been achieved with support from Ms MacGillivray's early intervention team, in particular four nursery nurses who have helped the teachers create environments that are closer to nurseries than schools.
In the redesigned classroom where Ms Allan and Ms Adams now team-teach, their pupils are working at a variety of activities, from arranging rainbow letters to computing to playing with model cars. It is a busy place and all the children have an air of purpose about them. It does feel more like a nursery than a classroom but there is a lot of learning going on.
"These letters are magnetic," explains Rachael, who is at a table with two others. "I'm putting them in the right place on this rainbow.
"Sometimes we get to play. Sometimes we have to do really hard work like spell words."
Against the wall two boys peer out through the plastic windows of a red car made mostly of fabric. "We are going to school in this car," Stuart says, jumping up and down and bumping his head painlessly on the roof.
"Sometimes we have to do work with a book," says his motoring companion, Ewan. "But we have already finished ours, so we get to play in the car."
The teachers have clearly not abandoned all thoughts of learning and teaching - far from it - but feel great relief at being given permission to depart from the 5-14 guidelines on structure and balance of the curriculum.
The managements and teachers at the four primaries involved in Closing the Gap say that as three of them had been inspected recently they felt they had breathing space to attempt something different and be innovative. Rigorous evaluation of the children's performance, for comparison with classes taught more conventionally, will come later this year. Early indications are that an easier ride in the first year at school will not result in a longer educational journey and could mean more children stay on the bus.
To a visitor, the most obvious difference between the classes taking part in the project and those elsewhere is not the nature of the lessons or the layout of the classrooms, but the morale of the teachers.
"This project has shown the teachers that we can, with support from management and the local authority, make changes that create a more positive experience for everyone," says Ms Adams.
"The project has left us feeling empowered and positive. It has let us to go with our instincts and teach from the heart, which is something teachers have not been allowed to do for a long time."