Three's company when improving the curriculum

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
Trios of teachers joined forces on a Glasgow City Council trial focusing on Curriculum for Excellence and classroom practice

I have a much better understanding of where we are heading with Curriculum for Excellence. I wish we had had this earlier," says Glenda Kirwan, P7 teacher for Cleeves Primary.

Amanda Brown, from Merrylee Primary, agrees: "We didn't know if we were on the right track. Nobody knew if we were doing it right."

A deeper understanding of Curriculum for Excellence is one of the many benefits teachers reported, following the pilot of Improving our Classrooms, a new method of continuing professional development being trialled by Glasgow City Council and Aspect, the professional association for children's services.

The course, which ran over a period of three months, consisted of three full-day sessions, three twilight sessions and three class visits. It focused on encouraging depth of understanding and on promoting the professional role of teachers in the classroom and the impact they have on learners.

"Teachers are very sympathetic to the philosophies of Curriculum for Excellence," says ex-HMIE chief inspector Chris McIlroy. "We looked at some of the ideas - relevance, breadth of learning, coherence - and how they apply in the classroom.

"When you ask a teacher what they mean and how they use them, you get different answers. In the course, we took the time to understand this and shared ideas of what they mean and how it brings improvements to the child."

Central to the course's success was the organisation of trios - groups of three teachers who were to help and support each other in achieving their goal of improving in one area of the curriculum.

Miss Brown and Mrs Kirwan worked with Elaine Rutherford from Notre Dame Primary, meeting up regularly, keeping in touch by email and telephone, providing each other with support and advice and putting the children in touch.

"We had to look at areas of Curriculum for Excellence which we wanted to improve on," says Mrs Kirwan. "That in itself was a challenge. We decided to work with writing, the challenge and enjoyment strand of the curriculum. We looked at how to motivate and how to improve the children."

Ideas developed among the three and they opted for an aliens theme for class-based projects. This appealed because of the number of boys in Miss Brown's P2 class, but also because it was workable for children at different levels. While the pupils in Mrs Kirwan's and Miss Brown's classes found writing difficult, and some did not see the point, Mrs Rutherford's P2 was already good at writing.

"My children were quite competent writers, so I looked at how to challenge them," says Mrs Rutherford. "Once I set them the challenge, they rose to meet it."

The different classes got to know each other. The P7 children from Cleeves buddied up with the P2 children from Merrylee Primary writing a book on aliens which they read to them. The P2 classes in both Notre Dame and Merrylee primaries corresponded by email, sharing the excitement of their joint project.

As part of their course, the teachers each had to produce a portfolio detailing their work and what they had achieved. For each class this was different.

While Mrs Kirwan talks of the children in her class who have now moved up from the first to the second level, for Mrs Rutherford it was seeing the children's enthusiasm for adjectives and using a thesaurus, and for Miss Brown it was seeing evidence that the children who only a few months ago stated they "didn't do writing", took more of an interest in learning to read and write.

As well as providing each other with support and bouncing ideas off each other, the teachers were also in regular contact with Mr McIlroy.

"He came to the school and regularly emailed," says Mrs Rutherford. "His visits really focused you and he was so enthusiastic."

"We gave him our thesis," adds Miss Brown. "He gave suggestions for ways to go. Teaching can be quite a lonely job. This got us out of that. We were happy to say when we were struggling and to say, `Can you give us ideas?' It takes a lot to be able to say that."

Everything in the course was aimed very much at teachers, says Mrs Kirwan. "Nothing was not relevant. Chris would say, `Put away the airbrush. I want to hear about real teaching'."

Mr McIlroy was equally impressed by the portfolios produced and the work which went on. "From my viewpoint as a past inspector, I have seen some superb work. I have been really impressed by the quality.

"The trios was one strong point and this worked much, much better than we could have dreamt. They talked a lot, visited each other's classes, supported each other's ideas for the portfolios and it really released a lot of professional energy. The trios were small enough to get really strong friendships going."

Sustainability is the reason behind the course, says head of education Maureen McKenna. She says: "It is about creating partnerships, networks, inspiring each other. Our whole philosophy in Glasgow is about investing in class teachers. If we don't invest in class teachers, how can we improve outcomes?"


This was the first Improving our Classrooms course run by Aspect (Scotland); the second is currently running, with plans to take it to other local authorities.

The course aims to put into practice the ideas from the Donaldson report, and current research findings are covered in it to enable teachers to focus on practice, rather than having to spend time reading up.

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