An innovative project that promotes “risk-taking” in classrooms and allows teachers to draw on expert advice from academics may provide a blueprint for closing Scotland’s notorious attainment gap.
The Schools Improvement Partnership Project (Sipp) aims to link school staff who are keen to try out new teaching techniques with experts in universities who could help them to evaluate their methods.
It also helps to forge links between schools across Scotland so that good ideas do not remain hidden in individual classrooms.
In the first two years of the scheme, various projects have helped Scottish pupils to make an impressive amount of progress in both literacy and numeracy, an evaluation finds. The success of such schemes suggests that educational outcomes could be improved for all children, “irrespective of their background”, the report adds.
Among the variety of experimental techniques tried is one project that aimed to help ethnic minority students improve their grades by rediscovering their intuitive understanding of maths (see box, right). In another, pupils took on the role of teacher in small reading groups.
Over the decades, a plethora of well-intentioned projects have tried to close the attainment gap, only to quickly peter out amid uncertainty over the difference that they were making to pupils’ progress.
But those behind Sipp, which began in 2013, believe that it could act as a game-changer by enabling teachers to establish what actually works in the classroom.
Christopher Chapman, director of the University of Glasgow’s Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, which helps to run Sipp in conjunction with Education Scotland, told TESS: “It gives [teachers] opportunities not only to share their own excellent practice but also to learn from others in a structured, systematic way, which will benefit their pupils.”
Sipp initially involved eight classroom-based projects designed to improve learning, in which a “risk-taking culture” was encouraged, Professor Chapman said.
But teachers could also discuss their ideas closely with university researchers and learn how to make sense of data that would show if they were effective.
A Robert Owen Centre report shows that 80 per cent of those involved believe that Sipp has increased teachers’ ability to tackle educational inequality, up from 54 per cent as the scheme began. Pupils’ aspirations have been raised and there have been some dramatic improvements in both literacy and numeracy (see box, above).
The project has also created new and strong bonds between teachers in different schools. Staff went on day-long “residentials” together to share their ideas. Professor Chapman explained: “This isn’t about going on a one-off course or Inset day – it’s about changing the nature of the relationships in the systems.”
Despite this, the evaluation shows that progress across the eight projects has been “uneven”. Sipp has worked best where teachers have been able to “challenge established norms of practice”, it says.
This is far from easy: last month education expert Professor John MacBeath told TESS that teachers’ attempts to innovate had been stymied because some local authorities were too “dictatorial” about schooling (“‘Heart of Darkness’ wants a light touch from authorities”, Insight, 29 January).
The Sipp evaluation, however, finds there are “continued signs of growing decentralisation and democracy”.
Professor Chapman believes that the success of Sipp can be measured by whether the projects retain their momentum – and the signs are encouraging.
He also hopes that it will help Scotland respond to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s recent review of Curriculum for Excellence, which calls for the country to build a much stronger research base, rather than relying on evidence from elsewhere (bit.ly/OECDScotland).
Professor Chapman acknowledged that council budgets were under “phenomenal” pressure, but said that innovative approaches were crucial when money was tight.
In the East Renfrewshire Sipp project, Crookfur and Thornliebank primary schools worked on maths attainment with male and ethnic minority pupils.
They introduced P5s to “cognitively guided instruction” (CGI), which focuses on children’s intuitive understanding of maths, rather than more traditional, prescriptive techniques.
Within 18 months, nearly every pupil showed statistically significant improvements. They no longer felt restricted to set procedures or algorithms, instead coming up with their own problem-solving techniques.
One headteacher said that staff had felt liberated to try new ideas, whereas previous attempts to close the attainment gap involved “more and more of the same”.