PPP-Practise, Participate, Perform

Took the opportunity on Thursday to visit the new Prestwick Academy. Having worked in the old school for over ten years it was always going to be an interesting experience, but I could not have envisaged just what a difference the change of environment would make. Built on the same site with funding from the sometimes controversial Public-Private-Partnership scheme (PPP), the contrast is like night and day, as what strikes you immediately about

the new building is how light and spacious it is, especially in the public areas such as the corridors. As I toured the school the difference in the body language of many of my ex-colleagues was also striking, with broad smiles and a beaming sense of pride replacing some of the grim sense of purpose which the old buildings often encouraged.

On reflection however, I couldn’t help wondering whether the new Prestwick, just like all the other new school buildings appearing across the country are simply brighter, cleaner, more humane exam factories, in which some of our young people will continue to achieve marginally better Higher results than the previous generation while an increasing number are left behind in the race because they are wearing lead boots. Or is there enough space in there, literally and metaphorically, to transform these new schools into places where all young people have a chance to excel, can expect to participate actively, to practise the life skills they will need long after school, and most importantly have the opportunities to perform on a daily basis.

As Pat Kane reminds us in The Play Ethic, Reggio Emilio’s main theorist Loris Malaguzzi used to describe the space of a school as “the third teacher”. One aspect of each school is the careful construction of “piazza” spaces, both for the whole school and within each classroom. In these, children and adults can find the opportunity to display their projects, mount dramas, performances and concerts, and otherwise express and affirm the collective identity of the school through creative identity.

Fortunately at Prestwick, whether by accident or design, there are enough communal spaces to allow for this kind of active collaborative learning to take place, and I look forward to seeing how that happens in the months and years to come. The plan to “collapse” the traditional first year timetable fo a week or more in May/June for a Health in the Environment event or project, with a member of staff from each curricular area involved in the planning group is a good place to start. Planning is key to the success of such a venture, with clearly defined learning outcomes an absolute pre-requisite.

Two articles in the Times Educational Supplement this week effectively crystallise the choice we are facing in education in this country at the moment. In one, the head of history at Dundee High School explains why they are so successful (ie they have very good pass rates at Higher and Advanced Higher), one of the reasons being that the school believes “first year should be a preparation for Higher”. A few pages further on, Paul Thomson, the rector of Jordanhill School, having been part of a Scottish delegation to Ontario, Canada, describes some of the features of the increasingly successful education system there, which include no external examinations, well-developed vocational pathways and no school inspectorate. Sounds to me like we should be having a closer look there, and asking ourselves how serious we are about the values, purposes and principles of Curriculum for Excellence, before we continue hurtling along the path to even more external exams and greater accountability. Let us not be ambiguous about this – a young person’s first year at secondary school should be about opportunities for learning in a creative and stimulating environment, and a further preparation for life in a rapidly changing world. Highers may or may not be a short episode along the way. Long may they flourish at Prestwick and elsewhere!

Photo Animoto

I can hardly contain my excitement this week, having discovered the amazing delights of animoto, an online service where you can upload your digital photographs, choose a soundtrack from animoto’s bank of music or from your own collection and have the whole thing converted into a cool video. To test it out I set off on Thursday morning armed with my simple and cheap digital camera, and spent an hour taking pictures around the centre of Glasgow. Tinseltown in the Rain  by The Blue Nile was an easy choice of soundtrack given the weather, and after downloading the photos to my laptop I was watching my first video production within a couple of hours. I hope you’ll agree that it looks very professional, and the really exciting thing about it is its huge potential for use in the classroom as a tool for developing literacy as there is no technical expertise required! If you prefer to watch it on YouTube please do so by following the link.

Get On With Your Work

Most people will be familiar with Pat kane as one half of the succesful pop duo Hue and Cry, but he is also a successful writer, journalist, broadcaster and thinker. In his acclaimed book “The Play Ethic” he explores the notion that human being are players by nature, that we learn and create through play, and that the work ethic, appropriate in the industrial age and much loved by Gordon Brown, is increasingly irrelevant in the third millenium. The notion of learning through play is explicit in the new Curriculum for Excellence in the early years, but why stop there would be Kane’s argument. In relation to education in particular he says;

“We need a new way to look at the complexity of the educational experience – one that regards the apparent “messiness” and “imprecision” of play as a deep resource for understanding, rather than something which has to be squeezed out of curricula tailored to deliver better performance statistics for short-termist politicians. I suggest that scholars might unite around a new notion of literacy – a “multi-literacy” that ties together the deep humanism of the teaching profesion with the ludic realities that face their pupils in the new century.”

Reading Kane’s analysis reminded me of a comment made by Guy Claxton at the Scottish Learning Festival a couple of years ago, when he highlighted the deep-rooted cultural acceptance in this country of school or learning as “work” (how often in schools do you hear expressions like, “Hand in your work”, “Get on with your work”, “Have you finished your work?” etc. Claxton’s challenge to teachers was that every time they found themselves about to use the word “work” they used the word “learning” instead, and to discover what a shift in mindset would follow.

Dealing with Dyslexia

HMIE’s launch of “Education for learners with dyslexia” this week in Dunfermline was a significant contribution to the continuing discussion around a very sensitive issue. Acknowledging that there is still no generally agreed definition of the term and the “condition“, the report nevertheless goes on to describe a very broad range of provision for young people across Scotland who have difficulties with reading of one kind or another. What most authorities are able to agree on however is the British Psychological Society’s definition of dyslexia;-

“Dyslexia is evident when accurate and fluent word reading and/or spelling develops very incompletely or with great difficulty. This focuses on literacy learning at the word level and implies that the problem is severe and persistent despite appropriate learning opportunities. It provides the basis for a staged process of assessment through teaching.”

Sadly, the report found that “in most (secondary) schools, including independent schools, learning and teaching focused too heavily on textbooks and activities on reading and writing. ICT was not readily accessible within the classroom or sufficiently integrated into pupils’ learning experiences.” This doesn’t apply only to young people with reading difficulties of course, but highlights yet again the need for us to re-define literacy and make sure we are preparing young people for the world of the present and the future, not the world of the past.

For the record, the report’s description of a school which was developing a “dyslexia-friendly” ethos is one whose approaches included:-

  • a strong emphasis on early intervention and solution-focused approaches
  • high quality learning support accommodation including ICT provision and a range of appropriate resources
  • staged intervention processes which ensured that pupils were identified at an early stage
  • taking good account of the needs of pupils needing more choices and more chances
  • regular monitoring and tracking of pupils’ progress at reviews
  • effective links with partner agencies, where appropriate, to support pupils and families as required; and
  • a culture of inclusion

Despite the challenges outlined in the report, it was clear from the conference that there is great deal of work being done already by a few very committed individuals, and very often it is the simple, practical ideas which are most effective. I particularly liked the practice introduced by Carol Cutler, PT Support for Learning at Barrhead High School, of issuing pupils with a small ID card outlining their reading difficulties, which could be handed over to unfamiliar adults such as supply teachers, thus avoiding the dyslexic pupil’s biggest fear, being asked to read out in class. Read the report