Teamwork hits goal for reform

16th October 2009 at 01:00
Groundbreaking school nets benefits from joined-up thinking of the new curriculum

There's a buzz around this school - you can study cheerleading and archaeology as electives, and even the giant sunflowers nod politely as you walk past in the playground.

Parents are also cheerleaders at Monifieth High - more than 1,000 interested mums and dads signed up to the launch of Glow. The school has 1,100 pupils and is the first secondary in Scotland to roll out the educational intranet to parents.

"It will help us get even more involved with supporting our children at home and we won't have to keep scouring the bottom of the schoolbag for those crumpled letters," says Duncan Myers, chair of the parents' council. "We're also keen that parents without internet access won't miss out."

The school will do that, he explains, by making sure paper copies of everything are still sent home.

Pupils also take part - the head boy and girl lead the pupils' senior management team, meeting weekly with the staff management team. A group of sixth-years supports teachers, helping younger pupils who may be struggling in class.

This afternoon, head Richard Coton and his deputy Graham Kiddie are studying the latest exam results, and they're smiling: "It looks pretty good - it looks as if we're heading in the right direction," says Mr Coton, another enthusiastic cheerleader at this Angus school, a few miles from Dundee.

The Minister for Schools and Skills, Keith Brown, visited recently and heard how pupils were among the first in Scotland to benefit from A Curriculum for Excellence.

"We're now teaching our new first-years using the level 3 experiences and outcomes," says Mr Coton.

"We've moved away from 5-14 totally for S1 and that's a year ahead of the Government's projected timeline, and a year ahead of where most schools are at."

Paul Cunningham, 28, principal teacher for health improvement, didn't enjoy school but thinks current changes are making it a happier place for sporty youngsters.

"That's the big thing I think is brilliant about A Curriculum for Excellence - it's making learning more relevant, more meaningful, and it's making kids more active when they're learning and therefore they're enjoying it more," he says.

A few years ago, Paul started a project based on the World Cup. "In PE, the kids played out a little World Cup tournament when it was on TV and in home economics they studied the diet and nutrition of a football player," he explains.

"`Eurofieth' has run for two years now and we have an event that runs for four weeks in the summer term where pupils play a football competition, then they are going up to English and learning to write match reports and learning about journalism and how to interview people."

In modern languages, pupils write reports on their favourite football players in German and French. In maths, they investigate how to run a Fantasy Football league and organise budgets for away games.

Pupils are encouraged to apply for the senior sports team, organising inter-house events and coaching younger pupils under teachers' supervision. "We've found that the younger pupils are actually responding better to senior pupils than they are to teachers," says Mr Cunningham.

Pupils can take coaching qualifications, and a junior sports team is planned to encourage primary pupils and ease transition into S1.

In a separate venture, English teacher Audrey Simpson launched a literacy project with a colleague in 2006. "We thought literacy wasn't just the domain of the English teacher and we wanted to improve pupils' writing across the curriculum," she says.

A voluntary cross-curricular team ran an audit of writing across the school: "The first thing we thought was that no writing should be done in school unless pupils and staff were aware of the purpose, the audience it was being written for, and whether they should be taught language they needed," says Ms Simpson.

"We can't make assumptions. You can't moan about kids not knowing things if we don't teach them. They've got to be taught the skill of writing, whether it is a report in science or an essay in English."

Feedback from colleagues has been positive: "Of course pupils find it easier to write if the teacher tells them why they need to and what it's supposed to look like, and teaches them specific vocabulary and how to lay things out, instead of just saying `write an essay', `write a report'. It's being specific about it."

This year, the school will focus on effective discussion: "It's not just kids talking about things in groups; it's getting them to use discussion as a tool to evaluate, to problem-solve, to even have moral judgments," says Ms Simpson.

The new first-years will be looking at Scottish citizenship after Christmas, focusing on the Jacobites in history and exploring cross- curricular links.

History teacher Laura MacLean explains: "In geography, maybe they'll be looking at highlands and lowlands and the make-up of Scotland. In RE, they'll be looking at Catholicism and Protestantism - the differences between them and then sectarianism.

"In English, they'll be looking at Scottish poetry, maybe the work of Burns, and in music maybe they'll look at the `Skye Boat Song'. So they're having a similar theme throughout many subjects but they're able to link all their learning together."

Mr Coton calls A Curriculum for Excellence "the thing that I have been waiting for since I was a young teacher". He adds: "When I started teaching, I had considerable professional autonomy. The system increasingly tried to take that away from me, and now it's being given back to us. Freedom is scary, but it's worth it."

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