Where the Leven and the Clyde meet

12th February 2010 at 00:00
The headteacher and staff of Dalreoch Primary went back to the drawing board and came up with a new curriculum structure

Joe is technically in P3 because of his age, but when he goes to school at Dalreoch Primary in Dumbarton, he is in the early-level "skills" class for literacy and numeracy with 11 other pupils, mostly from the P1 age-group.

When the bell rings and it's time to do his cross-curricular topic, he goes into his Leven community class, with 13 other P1-4 pupils of mixed ability. And on Friday morning, Joe (not his real name) attends his school council with nine other P1-7s.

Confused? None of the pupils or staff at Dalreoch are. They think the new curriculum structure makes perfect sense. It ticks all the boxes for Curriculum for Excellence and seems to be enhancing pupils' confidence, behaviour and attainment.

When Dalreoch's headteacher, Geraldine Currie, attended a two-day seminar on Testing the Framework last February, she took the organisers at their word when they said she could have a blank sheet of paper and it was OK to take risks.

"We were asked to design a high-level curriculum map of features of Building the Curriculum 3. Everyone was asked to look at a new curriculum plan for the following year, but what you chose was up to you. It wasn't to be prescriptive any more - it was to fit our own context and where our school was at," she said.

In February 2007, Dalreoch had received a poor inspection report from HMIE. Miss Currie arrived in August that year as acting head, and with the rest of the staff worked hard to turn the school around. Its follow- through reports were very positive.

The curriculum-planning conference took place a month after the school was given the all-clear from the inspectorate, so she was anxious about the prospect of such a radical change. "The staff had worked incredibly hard to right the wrong and turn the school around, and they were buzzing about the report they had just had," she says. "As a manager, I wondered if I was ready to take this year on - but the changes have been driven by the staff, working with partners, kids and parents."

Dalreoch Primary was built in 1955 for 450 children; it now has a roll of 95, but also houses facilities for early intervention, music and out-of- school care. With so few pupils, it might have faced closure had it not been for its protected status, thanks to two murals painted in its entrance hall by the late David Donaldson, who became the Queen's Limner (painter) in Scotland. It has a free school meal entitlement of 32.6 per cent - well above West Dunbartonshire's and the national average.

Miss Currie and her staff, who range widely in experience, went back to the drawing board and came up with a curriculum structure that is arguably one of the most radical to emerge in the primary sector under Curriculum for Excellence.

All children are set by ability for literacy and numeracy in classes corresponding to the early, first and second levels of CfE. This means a class can have children ranging in ages by three to four years.

Miss Currie is convinced there is no stigma for older children learning alongside younger ones: composite classes have been a feature of the school and, with ages mixed in other areas under the plan, it is accepted as the norm. The teachers find this arrangement ideal for active and co- operative learning techniques.

When it comes to the interdisciplinary areas of science, expressive arts, social subjects and health and well-being, the school is divided into two mixed-ability communities - P1-4 pupils are in the Leven community and P5- 7 pupils in Clyde. (The school is close to where the River Leven flows into the Clyde.)

Three teachers and one learning assistant are assigned to the Leven community and three teachers and two part-time learning assistants to Clyde. Within each, there are three mixed-ability classes, named after different colours - but the teachers and assistants in each community work in a team, planning collaboratively.

When pupils are in their community classes, they also spend one afternoon a week on writing in context across the curriculum.

The new structure has allowed Miss Currie to go to outside partners - such as arts and culture, libraries, sports and music - and discuss how they can plan activities better and give added value. Instead of four music instructors visiting the school at different times, for example, they now tutor the whole school simultaneously. This includes the teachers and a learning assistant, all of whom have taken up a musical instrument to learn alongside the pupils.

Friday mornings are set aside for pupil councils. Previously, there were three - eco, road safety and a more general pupil council - but only a few pupils benefitted. This year, every pupil is a member of one of nine new councils - eco, active, community, international, financial, buildings and grounds, health, technology and road safety.

Each council is supported either by a teacher or by another member of staff (learning assistant, clerical staff or ICT technician) helped by a parent. This has taken some people out of their comfort zone, Miss Currie admits, but she feels she has been lucky: "Everyone has rolled their sleeves up."

In June, the children were allowed to nominate three preferences for which council they would like to join - membership was then decided by ballot. Each council is given a start-up fund of pound;20 to pay for materials, such as stamps. They must create an action plan and fulfil various targets throughout the year, including fund-raising and involving outside organisations.

The financial committee, for instance, set up a credit union and had to investigate ways to bank its money. Miss Currie recalls walking past the school office and overhearing one pupil on the telephone, introducing herself and asking confidently if she could be put through to the bank manager.

"The following week, the financial council was invited to see the bank manager and go through the whole process. How many adults would feel comfortable phoning up their bank manager? This gives them real responsibility," she says.

Depute head Marjory Smith, who teaches the Clyde community, says: "If you go round the school and talk to the children, pretty much every child will have a confident conversation with you. A few years ago, they were not so capable."

The big question is, of course, what impact their plan has on attainment. Half-way through the year, it's difficult to be precise. "It's too early to say if we are moving on attainment. We are delivering Curriculum for Excellence, yet being measured by criteria for a curriculum we don't deliver (the 5-14 levels A-F). So there is always a degree of ambiguity," says Miss Currie.

Teachers' instinct, nevertheless, is that their pupils are responding and working well.

In an evaluation carried out by the school, the children reported that they enjoy working with more people, have more friends, are enjoying the different stages, and like not being stuck with the same teacher. They find the skills classes fun and exciting, and say they are learning more.

Parents, too, have been closely involved throughout. While the new structure was still in the planning stages, staff produced their own DVD explaining what CfE was all about and held parent meetings to clarify their objectives.

Any disadvantages tend to be associated with practicalities. With a small staff and her depute holding class-teaching responsibilities, Miss Currie has limited flexibility in how she can organise her teaching teams. On the credit side, because the school is small, all teachers have had to take on leadership roles over the years.

When letters have to be distributed to a particular age-group - say, P1s on the subject of brushing teeth - they can be scattered all over the building in different groupings.

"Would it work in a bigger school?" is a question Miss Currie is frequently asked.

"Why not?" she responds.

Monday mornings at Dalreoch start with a short, sharp business meeting, led by herself, for all pupils, staff and parents in the building at the time. She goes through the diary for the week, talks about who is likely to be coming into the school and reviews what was learnt the previous week, before setting new targets. These include a social target, such as resolving conflict. The various councils are given an opportunity to make announcements about their work, while clerical staff can issue their vital reminders to pupils.

While a whole-school meeting might not be practicable for 450 pupils, there is no reason why it couldn't be held for separate upper and lower sections, argues Miss Currie. And where Dalreoch has two community groups, a larger school could have three or four. The skills classes could operate anywhere.


The curriculum structure

Skills classes for core literacy and numeracy - all set by ability using national test results and consultation with teachers:

  • One early-level class: 12 pupils - nine P1s, one P2 and two P3s. One of the P3 pupils is a child who should have had an extra year at nursery, says Miss Currie; the other comes from a travelling family and has experienced family difficulties.
  • Two first-level classes: one has 17 pupils - six P2s, 10 P3s and one P4; the other has 20 pupils - 13 P4s, six P5s and one P6. The P6 child has an indivualised educational programme (IEP) and his placing in this group was done in consultation with his parents.
  • Two second-level classes: one has 21 pupils - six P5s, seven P6s and eight P7s; the other has 20 pupils - 15 P6s and five P7s.
    • Community classes for inter-disciplinary learning in science, health and well-being, expressive arts and social subjects:

      • Leven - for P1-4, split into three mixed-ability sections and taught by three teachers and one learning assistant.
      • Clyde - P5-7, also split into three mixed-ability groups and taught by three teachers and two part-time learning assistants.
      • Staff plan lessons collaboratively.
        • School councils

          • Membership - around 10 pupils in each, across P1-7, supported by either a teacher or two other adults.


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