Putting the pupil at the centre

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Stranraer Academy's innovative solution is to integrate subjects into three groups. Rector Michael Davies shares his experiences of the radical approach

I'm not claiming that the method we use at Stranraer Academy is the only possible solution, but it is an attempt to deal with the problems of S1 and S2.

One of the negative aspects is that it imposes a burden on teachers because of all the curricular planning, and teachers are already stretched. But colleagues have enjoyed doing it. Remember that old expression: the more you give, the more you get.

One aspect we're proud of is that now there is one teacher who knows each youngster much better than ever before. Our changes have also helped make S1 and S2 important to teachers.

The first phase of our ambitious Pounds 11 million redevelopment programme at Stranraer Academy, pioneered by Dumfries and Galloway Council, has just been completed. The move into purpose-built accommodation has been deliberately designed to promote two complementary themes.

First, a series of "schools within schools" in order to promote a sense of security and belonging and, second, a departure from the linear-cellular functional thinking behind school architecture, in order to foster a wide variety of approaches to curriculum and learning.

Since 1992, Stranraer has been developing a distinctive approach to the challenges facing secondary schools in the light of the 5-14 development programme and the growing body of evidence that suggests this phase of education has been allowed to stagnate for far too long. We have created small teams of teachers who collaborate on relatively large areas of the curriculum, and set up "home bases" for non-practical classes.

Five years ago, Stranraer Academy, in common with most other Scottish secondary schools, delivered the curriculum through 14 or more discrete subjects in S1 and S2. The school had little history of departmental collaboration, and there was a precious guarding of single subject status and the boundaries that compartmentalise the pupils' experience.

It was not uncommon to find that pupils were taught by 14 different teachers in S1 and that by the end of S2 this number could have mushroomed to 27. To make matters worse, the school stretched across three separate teaching blocks, increasing the sense of fragmentation.

There was a prevailing culture of seeing S1 and S2 as a "fresh start", a period during which pupils should be exposed to as many different subjects as possible, so that they could make "objective" subject choices for the real work beginning in S3.

All these problems contrasted sharply with the pupils' experience of primary school. In the Stranraer area, nine out of 14 associate primaries have composite classes and only a handful have more than five full-time teachers. In all these schools the 5-14 curriculum was being delivered on a cross-curricular, largely thematic basis, with the class teacher acting as the focal point of curriculum planning, co-ordination and review. Parents, as well as children, had a known and accessible contact point.

The organisation of learning into chunks of knowledge which were largely remote from the children's experience, and the bureaucratic and rigid breaking of the day into equal chunks of time, irrespective of the activity or need, were already cast to history in many of these schools.

Four years ago we established a number of staff workshops and a cross-curricular working group to devise a framework for future development. The key elements that emerged were: * ensuring that every child is known well by at least one adult - recognising the primacy of good quality relationships; * bringing together guidance and subject teaching; * recognising that pupils have a need for security - a place of their own and a sense of belonging; * developing ways that encourage teachers to work together - to promote coherence and reinforce pupils' learning; * finding ways of improving links with, and continuity of, primary school experience and achievement; * according teachers greater flexibility in determining their own working arrangements in relation to time, space and resources; * encouraging effective monitoring of individual pupils' progress and careful planning of "next steps"; * sponsoring ways of involving parents as partners in the learning process.

This framework was essentially an attempt to promote dialogue about 5-14 and focus discussion on a number of key ideas. There was a deliberate attempt to steer away from the set scrum of claim and counter-claim over polarising issues, such as subjects v themes, or setting v mixed ability, or 55 v 70 v 80-minute periods, or traditional v progressive teaching. Instead, the framework and the notion of semi-autonomous teams gave teachers and pupils the opportunity to exercise discretion over what they saw as coherence, flexibility and appropriateness.

The idea that it was legitimate to prescribe learning experiences in a rigid weekly timetable, fixed up to a year in advance, was seen as thoroughly outmoded. It was recognised that chaos and mess could be as much a part of the challenge as plans and targets.

The outline that emerged was for complementary teams of teachers in three broad areas: * Humanities (40 per cent of time approx) - English, modern languages, social subjects, RE; * Science, maths and technology (35 per cent of time approx); * Expressive arts (25 per cent of time approx) - music, art, drama, physical education.

There would be a network of small curriculum teams within these groupings. The humanities team, for example, would have a suite of 5-6 rooms acting as both teachers' and students' "homebase". The teaching team would comprise teachers with backgrounds in English, social subjects, modern languages, religious and social education, who would work within the 5-14 guidelines to develop a curriculum that reflects the broad aims of the school and allows for the individual interests of students, interdisciplinary enquiry, more subject-focused study, and the improving of basic skills.

Each team would determine its own working arrangements vis-a-vis space, curriculum organisation, pedagogy, resources deployment and links with parents. They would decide when to act as individual tutors and when to come together.

They would also determine the appropriate length of time for various learning activities and negotiate their own timetable within the parameters set by the whole school timetable.

The challenge was to move towards a structure that places the learner at the centre of activity - small curriculum teams working in a "home base" with a defined cohort of students.

During the past three years, there has been some substantial progress. Since 1994 S1 has enjoyed the majority of its "non-practical" classes in a "home base", team approaches have been developed and the timetable blocked to give colleagues greater flexibility.

There has been a discernible change in both the relationships and variety of pedagogy used by teachers. In the current school year three humanities teams are operating across S1. Each comprises a teacher with a background in English, social subjects and drama - drama deliberately to give a different pedagogic dimension to the teams' work.

Out of a total of 20 periods, each team is responsible for eight lessons, notionally allocated as English (2), drama (2), social subjects (2) and enrichment (2).

Enrichment time is taken from the "flexibility" contained in the notional time allocations for 5-14 in S1 and S2. It allows for personal and social development, religious and moral education, and information technology, and offers pupils and teachers some choice.

The enrichment teachers act as first-line guidance and have considerable contact with their classes. We have seen a marked improvement in the knowledge of the children and the pastoral and academic care.

The blocking of the timetable has meant that whole mornings or afternoons can be used for thematic work, for class rotations, for field work and visits without disruption to other classes.

This, of course, is only the beginning. We have yet to explore the possibilities that cooperative team work can bring within maths, science and technology or expressive arts. But our experience with the humanities teams suggests that teachers and pupils respond positively and imaginatively to greater flexibility.

For pupils there is still the stimulus of the new when they enter S1, but they are no longer on the conveyor belt of discrete batches of knowledge. Nor are they subjected to moving around a complex campus, battling against the horizontal rain of Stranraer, as they attempt to make sense of a curriculum they had no hand in fashioning.

The 5-14 development programme has been a helpful focus for debate about the curriculum. It has been a useful vehicle for challenging assumptions about the school's organisation. At the same time, the 5-14 guidelines have ensured that freedom to plan and engage does not become a licence for indulgence. For each curriculum team there is a requirement to work within the aims of the school as a whole.

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