Team spirit at school

4th June 2004 at 01:00
It was fascinating to read John Stodter's letter about his visit to Norway in last week's The TES Scotland.

The Norwegians' imaginative approach to school building highlights the scandal of PPP, including building 19th century schools for the 21st century - actually worse than that, since Victorian schools were far more solidly built. He gives us a clear picture of Norway's new schools: spaces for young people to learn and grow up in, and where they can experience life as a community.

It's not just the buildings that we can learn from. I have just returned from my second visit to Norway, this time visiting two schools for 13 to 16-year-olds (they call them "youth schools"). These schools were not distinguished by their buildings - in fact, the older one was quite shabby and poorly equipped. It is the way Norwegian schools are organised which is fundamental.

Their schools are generally smaller than ours. More than 100 pupils in each year group is considered large. This is a matter of preference rather than population density, as schools in Oslo are also small.

The schools are structured to provide close working relationships between teachers and pupils. A class will have the same teacher for science and maths, or for Norwegian and social subjects. Norwegian teachers get to know the pupils far better than is possible here. Each class normally has no more than five or six teachers altogether, and probably two of them for over 50 per cent of the time.

In place of subject departments, the teachers work in year teams. Half a dozen teachers take collective responsibility for four classes of pupils.

Between them, they have sufficient expertise to cover all subjects, and if not (say for a music specialist) they borrow time from another team.

Most guidance, learning support and management functions are undertaken from within the team. They are not somebody else's job. The team makes joint decisions, including varying the timetable for special events - the maths day we saw, run entirely by pupils, or the earth and space project involving science, geography, maths and English. This flexibility also makes it easy to organise fieldwork and visits.

Teachers therefore have a very close knowledge of pupils' interests, talents and difficulties. The result is much less stress for teachers and pupils. It is rare to exclude a pupil from a lesson, and almost unheard of to exclude someone from school. Teachers rarely need to raise their voices.

They are able to rely on stable, well-established relationships to overcome difficult incidents, expressing "disappointment" rather than anger.

The pupils are more at ease, probably because they have a sense of belonging. Their classrooms often have a settee in the corner, curtains and flowers. In fact, Norwegian classes spend most of their time in their own classroom, whereas our high school pupils move from room to room, and are lucky to have a locker to call their own.

The sense of belonging is not at the expense of academic achievement. As well as co-operative work in small groups, Norwegian pupils spend a lot of time on sustained reading, answering challenging questions from textbooks.

We have good policies for inclusion in Scotland. We talk a lot about matching work to different interests and abilities, responding to learning difficulties and different ways of learning. We develop policies on thinking skills, and believe in educating the whole person towards civic responsibility.

Yet we are struggling to improve school ethos and give young people an experience of democratic living. All these policies are difficult to achieve when a teacher sees a class for one to three hours a week.

We should stop blaming young people and their parents for troubled behaviour, and start asking whether our secondary schools provide the right sense of community, a place to learn and mature.

We are rightly proud of Scottish educational traditions, but we also need to learn from elsewhere.

Terry Wrigley

Lecturer in educational development

Edinburgh University

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