When small is difficult

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Margaret Gooday explains ways to help rural schools deliver environmental studies under 5-14

It was a coincidence that only a month after the guidelines for environmental studies were published in March 1993, local authorities in the north and the islands, the Scottish Office Education Department and Northern College came together to agree the funding of the Rural Centre. The first project funded by the centre, set up at the Northern College in Aberdeen, was aimed at providing information about what small rural schools need for environmental studies under the 5-14 programme. The Rural Centre would then develop support materials.

To gather information about small schools and environmental studies, a questionnaire was sent to headteachers of schools with fewer than three teachers in Grampian, Highland and the three island authorities. Issues raised in the replies were followed up by interviewing five of the heads.

The result is a generally positive picture about the place of environmental studies in small primaries before the 5-14 guidelines.

But many heads recognised that they did not have well formulated sets of aims and that some aspects of environmental studies were not receiving enough emphasis in their schools. The popularity of "traditional" topics such as houses, festivals and the seasons tended to confirm these views.

At the time when the headteachers were filling in their questionnaires, in January 1994, their responses indicate that only about half of the schools had begun to implement the guidelines, most were at the stage of familiarising themselves with the document. Only a few were carrying out an audit of their programme to see how it fitted in with the guidelines.

Two of the five headteachers interviewed were already planning for environmental studies 5-14. They both recognised that the new curriculum had forced them to look closely at their existing programmes. Their comments suggest that both felt that implementing the guidelines would result in a more balanced curriculum for their pupils. It would be a curriculum based on science, social subjects, technology and information technology, rather than language in the guise of environmental studies, which one of them felt had often been the case in the past.

These two headteachers were both working in cluster groups, which were successful in promoting curricular development within the schools involved. Furthermore, one of the groups had been supported in this development work by its region, and it was responsible for the outcome of the development through its involvement at regional in-service events.

These two cluster groups were, however, in areas of a relatively high density of population. There is doubt about the viability of cluster groups in more isolated areas where it is very difficult for teachers and headteachers to meet on a regular basis. In such areas other ways of supporting headteachers may need to be developed. The use of information technologies may help but there is evidence from this investigation that these are under-used.

The expertise of teachers is recognised in environmental studies 5-14 as an important factor in designing programmes, and the guidelines suggest that it is a management task to "blend together the combination of expertise and interest which will best enhance learning for each class". For the small rural primary school this may pose a particular problem since the headteacher may not be able to draw upon the range of different areas of expertise among his or her staff that would be available to headteachers in larger primary schools. This is probably one of the reasons why planning for environmental studies 5-14 was identified by the headteachers who took part in this study as one of the most important areas that they needed help with.

Of particular concern was the need to invest in new resources. The Rural Centre has responded to the headteachers' needs by producing programmes of study for one-, two- and three-teacher schools, which incorporate the range of approaches to environmental studies taken by the schools who responded to this survey, and the requirements of environmental studies 5-14. Some of the topics included in these programmes, for example the Highland Clearances, electricity and transport, have been expanded to provide exemplar materials. These are now being tried out in pilot schemes in schools. It is to be hoped that these programmes will provide a focus for the joint curriculum planning that the cluster groups of schools involved in this investigation had found so valuable.

Margaret Gooday is at the Northern College in Aberdeen. Her findings were presented at a symposium of the European Conference of Educational Research in Bath last autumn.

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