Finding cover for non-contact time has allowed one primary teacher to specialise in a subject she loves and pass it on in fun ways, reports Douglas Blane
The method Rothesay Primary has devised to release teachers for their 1.5 hours a week of non-contact time is "uncharted territory", says the headteacher. However, the big map of France on the wall of Kathy McKirdy's furniture-free classroom helps the Isle of Bute pupils to get their bearings.
"Bonjour, la classe."
The response of the infants seated in a circle on the floor is instant and enthusiastic. Rhymes, songs, games and activities keep restless hands and feet active and brains focused and entertained.
"Where would we wear this chapeau?" Ms McKirdy asks, holding up a floppy, multi-coloured hat.
"In the sun," Rebecca replies.
"In French, please. Il y a du ...?
"Well done. Now everyone, turn to face around the circle and do the actions gently on the person in front: il neige."
Snowflake fingertips flutter lightly on children's backs.
"Il pleut." Raindrops pitter-patter, a few too heavily. "I shouldn't hear anyone go 'Ow!'," Ms McKirdy reminds them.
Overlooked by bright pictures and big text of un mouton, un escargot, une tomate, une aubergine and even a grinning, green dinosaure, the youngsters throw themselves wholeheartedly into the French lesson, pretending to pull on wellies, splash in puddles and swim in the sea.
Forty-five minutes later they troop out of the classroom and in come older pupils, who get a similar lesson taught in a similar way.
"It's very much a multi-sensory approach," says Ms McKirdy. "That's why there are no chairs or desks. The kids learn by doing, saying, seeing and listening."
Ms McKirdy, formerly an experienced P5 class teacher at Rothesay Primary, now provides all the weekly non-contact time for her colleagues, with two 45-minute sessions of French and drama for all 14 classes in the school.
The opportunity to move from class teacher to specialist was one she took only after some deliberation but it was, she says, an ideal opportunity to pursue a growing interest and expertise developed through continuing professional development. This was topped with a total immersion course for primary teachers at the Centre de Linguistique Appliquee in Besancon, in the Franche-Comte region of eastern France.
"I didn't have Higher French when I left school. I had been attending courses at the Alliance Francaise but was still only about A-level standard before going on the course, for which I got funding from the British Council.
"I am still experimenting with all the things we learned. I wasn't convinced about games and activities, the multi-sensory approach, for the older kids. But it's working fantastically well with all ages."
Teaching every pupil each week in a school of almost 400 is a very different job from teaching the same 25 pupils every day, says Ms McKirdy.
"But I enjoy seeing the different groups. I like the variety.
"The enthusiasm of the children is very rewarding. It's like their own little language and they love it. They're shouting 'Salut' and 'Bonjour' to each other in school and going home and singing happy birthday to their granny in French."
For headteacher Roddy McDowell, the children's response is no surprise because the teaching methods exploit modern research about accelerated learning and enlisting the whole brain.
"We now know children have to be actively involved for real learning to take place. The atmosphere in a classroom has to be right and the kids have to be stimulated. My own observation is that going to another teacher and doing a lesson in a very different way has a big wow factor for kids."
Mr McDowell believes increased use of specialists in primary schools will bring gains in children's learning and motivation, but will also test the schools system at several critical points. "We need to make sure pupils are not treading water at any stage of their education. We have to be flexible enough to cope with kids coming to upper primary and secondary with greater skills in particular areas of the curriculum."
Drawing specialists from the ranks of class teachers, while an attractive option for primary schools, does create a particular challenge for management, says Mr McDowell. "We now have a specialist based in our school who can't share many aspects of her job with her colleagues in the staffroom. So Kathy could easily become professionally isolated."
To avoid this, the school has been forging closer links with the modern languages department at Rothesay Academy, whose staff now team-teach once a week with Ms McKirdy. This has the added advantage of providing the academy with a clear idea of future pupils' attainment.
"I see this as an opportunity, a way of increasing our professionalism and taking control of the agenda," says Mr McDowell. "It will create challenges by its very success - we're all going to be challenged to keep up with the children, for instance - but that is no bad thing."