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5th December 2003 at 00:00
A cluster of Highland primary schools is moving ahead on three fronts: making good use of specialists, freeing up class teachers' non-contact time and introducing different teachers, which should help pupils cope with the transition to secondary school. Douglas Blane reports on the pilot scheme

An engineer, a Francophile, an information technology expert and a ballet dancer are helping Highland education authority solve a problem arising from the national teachers' agreement.

The four are all primary teachers who, while taking classes in their specialist subjects, can release class teachers for the two-and-a-half hours of non-contact time specified in the post-McCrone deal.

"This model is one of the first of its kind, so it's attracting a lot of interest," says quality development officer Clifford Cooke. "We started talking about it last year, did a lot of development work in the summer and launched it in August."

Four primary schools, serving around 1,000 pupils, are taking part in the two-year pilot. Millbank and Rosebank are in Nairn and Auldearn and Cawdor are within three miles of the town. The brief summary does not begin to convey the complexity of the project undertaken by the schools, nor the adjustments made by the participating P4-P7 teachers and pupils.

"It was very hard to organise," says Marion Mackay, headteacher at Millbank Primary. "Fortunately our schools are all quite close, so travel time for our four subject teachers - in information and communications technology, drama, French and health and technology - is not too bad. But it was quite an achievement for the headteachers to sit down and hammer out a timetable and still be speaking to each other at the end of it!"

Flexibility was vital, the four heads agreed. If any of them had been unwilling to make concessions, the exercise could not have been made to work.

Long-cherished slots for particular activities and lessons had to be abandoned. Four jigsaw puzzles of lessons, playtimes, assemblies and excursions, as well as visits from existing music, art and physical education specialists, had to be fitted into one large picture featuring the new peripatetic teachers.

For the first few days teachers in all the schools were "shell-shocked", say the heads. Three months into the project, the system has largely bedded down and seems to be working fairly smoothly.

One concern expressed by teachers is that large blocks of time formerly available for teaching language or maths have had to be split, broken up by lessons from the new subject teachers.

"There is a perception among some staff that there isn't enough time for the core subjects, maths and language," says Mr Cooke. "But when you look at the balance and the allocation of time across the curriculum, it is within the national guidelines.

"What has happened is that the flexibility in the curriculum - the 20 per cent - has tended to go on aspects of language and maths in the past. But in the Nairn model it is being used by the subject teachers."

There is far less slack in the new system, which means everyone has to be even more organised and better prepared. While class teachers have more non-contact time, they find they must be more aware of the passage of time than before. While delivering benefits to teachers, the Nairn model is not relaxed.

"The non-contact time is very useful," says Julia Jerrett, who teaches a P67 class at Cawdor Primary, a few miles west of Nairn. "It means you can get marking done and feedback to the kids very quickly, which is great for their learning, but you do have to be very focused.

"The time comes to us in three 50-minute slots. At first I would come out of class and maybe get involved in an issue with a child and suddenly half the time was gone. Now I plan and timetable what I'm going to do with the non-contact time, so I get the best out of it."

A few youngsters have not responded well to the influx of new teachers.

"Some children with challenging behaviour are finding it hard to cope with going from class teacher to subject teacher and back again," says Ms Mackay. "So we've had to withdraw a few while keeping them on the same programmes of study. We hope that by working with them we will be able to introduce them gradually to the same timetable as everyone else."

Most children, however, are finding the new model very stimulating, say the heads. This is confirmed by a group of 11-year-olds at Millbank Primary, who all nominate one of the new subjects as their favourite.

"It's very good," says Maria. "Normal teachers maybe don't have all the skills the specialist teachers have, so you get to know more. Also it's nice to get a break from your classroom and meet different personalities."

"It's a lot different from what we had before," says Laura, "but I like it.

You get different experiences. It takes a while for some of the new teachers to get to know you, but eventually they do."

"The drama teacher is really funny," says Kevin. "She does impressions.

Drama is my favourite subject now."

"ICT is mine," says Gary. "I knew a fair bit before because I have a computer at home but I've learned a lot more from the new teacher."

An issue for the authority, says Mr Cooke, is whether the new model is "deskilling class teachers in those areas of the curriculum they are no longer responsible for delivering". Emerging practice in Nairn suggests not and for an unexpected reason.

Fiona Lewthwaite, headteacher at Cawdor Primary, explains. "Some of my teachers are using part of their non-contact time to watch the subject teachers because they are so good. It is not defeating the purpose because it is their choice and it's contributing to their continuing professional development," she says.

"It's early days yet but the pilot is going well now. It is not easy to see other ways for teachers to get their two-and-a-half hours of non-contact time. Relief teachers are hard to find - we sometimes call a couple of dozen before finding one - and if you use them to release the teachers, they still have to prepare the work and pick it up again afterwards.

"A big advantage of what we're doing in Nairn is that teachers don't need to do that. It is creating quality time for the teachers and quality time for the pupils."

The cost of the pilot - pound;60,000 a year - is being met by Highland from Scottish Executive funding to implement the national teachers' agreement.

The model also addresses two of the Executive's steps for action in its response to the national debate on education: to make best use of specialist teachers in primary schools and to improve the transition from primary to secondary school.

Constantly changing faces and places may be one reason children's progress stalls when they move from primary to secondary school, but the Nairn youngsters are having to adapt to variety earlier. Even those children with challenging behaviour who are finding it hard to cope with the new system should be better prepared for changing schools.

Highland's director of education, Bruce Robertson, says: "As an authority we get a lot of feedback from parents and teachers that they'd like to see enhancement of specialisms in primary schools. The post-McCrone agreement gives us the opportunity to do so while reducing teachers' class-committed time.

"I have picked up a possible concern from Nairn about language and maths teaching. Little and often can be good in maths, while there are ways to deliver language beyond the confines of the language block. But it may be that small adjustments are needed. That's what a pilot is all about.

"Our next step is to look at the model in other parts of Highland, such as Ardnamurchan, a very widespread rural area. We know that one size does not fit all, so it will be adapted to suit local circumstances.

"Highland does want to roll this out. We want to enhance specialisms and opportunities for kids, and we would be delighted to share our experience with other authorities."

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