Dunoon's got talent
Kirn Primary’s radical idea of utilising staff’s individual expertise within a secondary-style structure has brought out all kinds of good things in teachers and pupils alike
There is more to the new curriculum than nurturing the abilities of every pupil - what about the teachers? They too are individuals, with unique interests and aptitudes. They too can blossom and grow in the fertile soil and new-found freedom of Curriculum for Excellence.
It’s a point that suddenly occurred to James Wyllie, headteacher of Kirn Primary, Dunoon, as the solution to a problem that had landed in his lap. “It was a headache. I’d consulted with staff here and with colleagues in other schools, but nothing looked like it could work.
“Then it came to me. My staff have all these strengths. We have someone with an arts degree, literacy skills and a theatre background. We’ve a teacher with a degree in outdoor education. We have a music specialist, a PE teacher, a French specialist, an art and ICT expert. Why not look at some kind of secondary school model for the upper primary?”
The problem to which this was the glimmering of a solution was that Kirn had gained a number of additional teachers, redeployed from other schools with falling rolls.
“But they weren’t full-time here,” says Mr Wyllie. “So getting continuity for pupils, when we had six teachers for half a week or less, and everyone needed McCrone time, seemed impossible.”
It wasn’t. But the solution does seem to go against the grain of recent experience, where separate departments in the secondary school, as well as rigid timetables, are making the new curriculum harder to implement there.
It also seems contrary to conventional wisdom that the primary-secondary transition is problematic for pupils, because one teacher and a close relationship become many teachers, who flit in and out of their lives. Surely forcing that transition earlier can’t be an improvement?
“I had to think about ages and abilities, and what would be best for the younger ones,” says Mr Wyllie. “We decided on an early years and first- level department with full-time members of staff, because I wanted the nurture there. Primary five to seven, on the other hand, would be taught in separate subjects by our part-time teachers.
“It is similar to secondary school but on a whole different scale. We have 80 kids in the department, in three classrooms along one corridor. But when they leave here they become one of 1,000 pupils. Our new structure helps prepare them for that.”
The new timetable gives Kirn teachers “deep, rich time”, they say - both with their specialism and with their pupils. “Calling them specialisms is new,” says drama teacher Katharine Elwis. “These are our passions. It’s such a pleasure to teach subjects we’re passionate about.
“The literacy you get out of it is amazing. When you ask a child who’s just acted out the killing of Duncan to write about creeping down a corridor in the middle of the night to murder your king, they just don’t stop. You get page after page of rich, meaty writing.”
There is a new depth and quality to the children’s learning, says Heather Hamlet, whose special responsibility is music and religious and moral education. “We do a lot of inventing now as well as singing and listening. This year we tied it in with conflict resolution, and worked together to put on The Peace Child.
“I taught the music to each of my P5, P6 and P7 classes and they also worked on it in drama. They made jewellery for the two tribes. Then we pulled it all together. A lot of them hadn’t done a big-scale show. It gave them a huge buzz.”
Something similar might have been possible within a conventional timetable, she says. “But it worked especially well in this new structure. You got real depth. We weren’t taking everyone down to the hall and wasting time watching others. We were doing it intensely in class, then pulling it together.”
Pupils now have time and space to reflect on their learning, she says. “They think about what they know and what they want to learn. Someone maybe wants to find out about places of worship, so goes on the laptop for a virtual tour of a cathedral. Somebody else is interested in Christian symbols and researches those. If they only had one half-hour a week, they couldn’t do any of that.”
One aspect of the Kirn model that’s not immediately obvious is that children do not get more time than before in any subject. They get longer blocks of time, which is where the potential for depth and richness arises - along with the fact that staff teach one or two subjects to three classes, rather than a dozen subjects to only one. This gives teachers more time to plan and prepare.
A unique feature of the new model is the six-week blocks of just one subject, except for a period of guidance, all day on Thursdays and Fridays.
Today, down in the hall, the Primary 7s are deeply immersed in Shakespeare with Mrs Elwis, contrasting the words he uses during the rise of Macbeth - “benediction”, “bounteous”, “chalice”, “dauntless”, “prowess”, “repose” - with those that signal his descent into madness and death - such as “gibbet”, “malevolence”, “murky”, “dismal” and “pernicious”.
Active learning - which lies at the heart of all Kirn teaching, says Mr Wyllie - is clearly in evidence in this drama and literacy lesson, as children move around the hall, throwing imaginary balls of the Bard’s words at one another. “How did that feel?” Mrs Elwis asks at the end of the session on the second part of the play. “What sort of balls were you throwing?”
“Hard”, “heavy”, “spiky”, “made of fire” and “full of sorrow” are some of the answers she gets, before the activity is repeated for words used in the rise of Macbeth - which elicits a different but equally engaged response that includes “soft”, “fluffy”, “furry”, “cuddly”, “candy floss” and “snowballs”.
A whole-class discussion on the power of Shakespeare’s choice and invention of words follows, with pupils expressing sophisticated thoughts, before explaining that they are now working on a play of their own. “It’s like Macbeth but we’re going to set it in our school,” says Jennifer. “Mr Wyllie will be the King of Kirn. He’s like Duncan.”
“We are turning it into a comedy,” says young Adam. “So we don’t murder him.”
“We have made the dinner ladies the three witches,” says Heather.
“We’ve turned the fights into dances,” explains Calum.
The great thing about all this, says Caleb, is that it’s pupils who have been taking decisions. “The play is about what we want to do. We choose the characters and who we want to be.”
“It’s not Mrs Elwis doing everything,” says Lewis. “It’s up to us. We do it all ourselves.”
All of which sounds wonderful for teachers, and maybe for learners, too. But do these long periods of time on one subject mean more of a challenge, and learning that is harder to grasp?
“It does get a bit harder as you go deeper,” Adam says. “But you already know the stuff on the surface. So that means at the same time as it gets harder it gets easier too, because you have learnt so much already.”
LET’S GO OUTSIDE
The hardest part of learning to work in teams is getting youngsters to listen to one another, says outdoor learning specialist Margaret Marr, while Primary 6s, all around her, are building shelters from fallen wood, in parkland some way from the school.
“When they get right into it and three or four have an idea at once, they can get upset. They have difficulty saying: ‘We’ll try yours first.’”
Science and health and well-being are Ms Marr’s main responsibilities, but her outdoor learning approach touches other parts of the curriculum, too.
“We’ve walked two miles today and done a pond study,” she says. “We’ve had an obstacle course through rhododendrons. There’s been lots of problem solving, which you can also do in the playground or the school garden.
“We take them on a Dunoon trail to learn local history, and do a graveyard study of local families, like the Lamonts. We talk about the war and how people died young.
“We planted everything in the garden. We’ve made raised beds and are growing runner beans, carrots, beetroots and potatoes from seeds. They’ve been making bird food from starch. It’s thrilling when you see children working together as well as this.”
Outdoor learning gives kids who aren’t academic a chance to shine, says Rhowan Fairman, one of three parent-helpers today.
“I wish I’d had it when I was young. If you’re struggling with reading and writing, this will make you happy. It will make you want to learn more.
“Ms Marr is full of knowledge and you can see them going: ‘Oh, that’s great.’ Like she told them the daddy-long-legs lives underground for three years, then comes out to mate. But it only has 24 hours before it dies. Isn’t that amazing?”
Parent Paul Wilson comes along on every outdoor trip to help out, he says. “I’ve noticed that the kids have to learn to work as a team. It doesn’t just happen. At first even getting them into the bus with everything they needed was a struggle. But it’s a well-oiled machine now. Their behaviour gets better and better.”
Lots of practice makes the difference, says young Kirsty. “We looked in a pond in the gardens of the castle today, and there were wee newts and they were cute. They are amphibians, I think. We’re making a summer shelter and a winter one that’s more covered up, by collecting sticks then putting on moss and leaves. We’re learning lots about trees and animals and plants and bugs - and we’re having a really good time.”
Photography by Chris James