An international project to raise achievement links schools from eight different countries. Raymond Ross looks at what the Scottish partners get out of it
What do wheelchair dancing, French cookery classes and German teachers using Scottish guidelines for school improvement have in common? They are all part of a major project which brings innovative teachers and school managers together to exchange ideas and improve education through self-evaluation. Funded by the Bertelsmann Foundation, set up by the huge Bertelsmann media empire based in Germany, the "International Network of Innovative Schools" (INIS) brings together 17 schools from Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Hungary, Norway, Canada and New Zealand.
"Self-evaluation refers to individual schools and pupils and is about finding common procedures to share across all the countries involved," says Professor John MacBeath, director of the Quality in Education Centre at Jordanhill, Glasgow, who is in charge of the Quality and Standards aspect of the project. "It is a very exciting project which gets teachers out of the limited perspective of seeing education from their own school, local authority, or even national perspective. It challenges assumptions, allows the teachers to travel and promotes change and progress."
Schools had to show how they express concern for pupils, handle innovation, develop staff potential, establish innovative school leadership, allow parents and other agencies to participate in school life, seek co-operation with external decision makers such as directors of education and national policy makers, and improve quality and evaluation. They also had to demonstrate how the national education system supports all these activities.
The first Scottish schools to have been involved with the project were St Aidan's High in North Lanarkshire, Prestonpans primary in East Lothian and Clippens Special School in Renfrewshire. Since 1998 they have taken part in international conferences and summer "academies", exchanging ideas and approaches to improving quality and evaluating the results. They will soon be linked via a website to participating schools in all eight countries. The next phase is to develop a world-wide perspective on "how good are our schools?" Funding for teachers and school managers to attend conferences comes mainly from the Bertelsmann Foundation, with some from the Scottish Executive. Dorothy Dickinson, depute head at Prestonpans, says the international networking is "invaluable", because teachers meet not only with their peers but also with inspectors, directors and "even ministers of education". They get the chance to speak with colleagues, say, from one school in Germany at the cutting edge of self-evaluation and another from Canada developing co-perative learning groups.
"Scotland and Canada seem to be at the forefront," she says. "German teachers, for example, are really taken with 5-14, because different regions of their country do not share a common curriculum or even evaluation processes."
The innovative approaches undertaken by the three very different Scottish schools on their home turf range from achieving beyond expectations at Prestonpans primary, to promoting achievement in and out of school at Clippens, and independent learning at St Aidan's High.
"Independent learning is about enhancing the ability of pupils to take control of their own learning and develop their own learning styles," says headteacher Rosemary McDonald. "The school must have an atmosphere and ethos to promote this... to see learning in a whole school way."
The three main strategies adopted by St Aidan's focus on primarysecondary transition, study support and core learning skills. All of these are evaluated regularly. "We invest a lot of staff time in primarysecondary liaison," says Miss McDonald. "We have staff working in primary schools and we share in-service time with primary colleagues to identify common approaches to learning. Pupils have their own transition profile which is shared by all departments rather than being focused only on literacy and numeracy.
"As part of the transition process we have partnership evenings where S1 pupils act as teachers for the night and introduce elements of the curriculum to new parents and pupils. We evaluate these evenings and find that most parents do recognise that schools nowadays are more interactive and challenging."
One innovative approach to study support is a community project the school has undertaken with Stanmore House (run by Capability Scotland), where S1 and S2 pupils work with profoundly handicapped children.
"They do wheelchair dancing which helps build relationships, raises self-esteem and helps with confidence and communication skills... which aids independent learning. These are crucial skills for the best of learning to take place," says St Aidan's assistant head and study support co-ordinator, Ann Hamilton-Smith The core curriculum, however, remains central to study support, though the approach here can also be quite radical.
"In an S3 study support group we were looking at modern languages and consulted the pupils. There was a reluctance to do languages but a desire for home economics. So we did French cookery with the pupils talking only in French to develop oral skills which they evaluated themselves.
"In S1 and S2 pupils also choose a skills group to be involved in, which could be computer or maths skills or video work. They focus on their learning."
The "whole school approach" matters, says Miss McDonald: "We don't reserve study support for the upper school. It's for all year groups because we regard it as a high priority. It is crucial to overall success because pupils develop the right transferrable skills to work with other pupils, as well as with teachers, in small groups. This has a positive effect on pupil-teacher, pupil-pupil and even on teacher-teacher relationships because working together in study support teachers see how other disciplines work."
Study support, she says, encourages students to set their own learning targets, which helps foster a more personalised approach to learning.
"Our teaching staff promotes core learning skills and we audit the skills across different subject areas in a three-year cycle while, through the staff development programme, teachers recognise their own responsibility to promote independent learning," says Miss McDonald.
"Built-in evaluation is crucial and has to be central to the culture of a school. The cross-curricular approach to staff development is embedded in the school and it's important that staff discuss learning itself and not just the content. The staff are learners too and the pupils recognise this."
As part of self-evaluation, pupils write coments on reports going home to parents and the school invites parental comment.
"Pupil comments tend to be harder on themselves than teachers often are," says Mrs Hamilton-Smith. "The teachers' role here is to help keep the targets realisitic, to encourage the pupils to think in small steps and blocks. It has to be manageable. You can't set up an expectation and not deliver on it and we help track progress with each pupil from S1 to S6 using a study-planner to plan and pace their learning." Miss McDonald says:
"The focus is to share targets and assessment criteria with pupils. This is critical. The whole thing is built on the school as a learning community. We have seen steady progress in attainment and believe the whole school approach promotes this."
ACHIEVING BEYOND EXPECTATIONS
Sharing targets and asssessment criteria with pupils is crucial to Prestonpans primary's aim of achieving beyond expectations. "Within the East Lothian context, when 5 to 14 came in, our school targets were towards the lower end of the spectrum," says depute head Dorothy Dickinson. "But by adopting strategies through the Bertelsmann project we were able to achieve increases of attainment by 20 per cent plus using these tools in last year's session. For example, P4 reading level B and above stood at 33 per cent in August 1998 but rose to 67 per cent by June 1999 against a target of 55.3 per cent. P4 maths level B and above stood at 16 per cent but rose to 64 per cent against a school target of 58.8 per cent. Why? Because the approach created an ethos of expectation. Pupils were sharing the responsibility for their own learning. We shared 5 to 14 guidelines with them by, for example, highlighting a page from the document and explaining it.
"Similarly, we share the criteria for a writing task at the outset so that the pupils are aware of what they are being asked to do." Head Donna Manson says Prestonpans also adopts a whole school approach: To achieve beyond expectation is one of our official aims, and through the INIS project we focus on evaluation using four tools: next steps (short term targets which the pupils understand and have ownership of); achievement assemblies (recognising pupils' efforts and successes); a homework club, and setting for maths and language." For setting in language and maths, both head and depute (official non-teaching posts) are involved in class work with pupils, while colleagues from the local secondary school come to join in teaching the setting groups in P7 (with money from the excellence fund). "It's important from a leadership perspective that the management team is actively involved," says Mrs Manson.
LEARNING IN AND OUT OF SCHOOL
At Clippens Special School in Renfrewshire the major focus of their "Learning in and out of School" project is inclusion.
"The Bertelsmann project has helped us to develop an inclusive approach to education for our pupils who have complex learning difficulties, including motor and sensory impairments," says headteacher Olwynne Clark. "It enables us to take a sharp look at it, to evaluate and to publicise it. "We're trying to get people to think about what inclusion really means. For me, real inclusion is where mainstream and special education pupils can be educated together while learning appropriately to their needs."
Clippens' main priority is to provide an appropriate mainstream link for every pupil by next session.
"A mainstream link means an opportunity for a pupil in our school to share a curricular activity with a pupil in a mainstream school. It's like a 'buddy system' where individual mainstream pupils come to recognise the type of support our pupils might need. Activities include expressive arts, computing and home economics.
"While teachers might determine the outcomes for mainstream primary pupils, we encourage secondary pupils to determine their own outcomes.
"It must be a positive learning experience for both sets of pupils, the mainstream and ours.
"To evaluate, we use questionnaires, group and individual interviews and video sessions.
"Most of these learning outcomes revolve around communication and problem solving.
Evaluation suggests the buddy system promotes growth of confidence, of patience, understanding of others and maturity.
"It brings success and achievement in different ways and is especially rewarding, I think, for non-academic pupils," says Mrs Clark.
Clippens seems well on target for its 100 per cent mainstream link target for next session, with the current percentage at 80 per cent.