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Sharing the seeds of knowledge

By Ian Matheson, Educational Planning and Research Officer, GTC Scotland

Learning from the knowledge and experience of our international compatriots can help us to develop our own practices and further improve standards at home.

There are many less pleasant - and less productive - ways of spending a week in May than in the company of colleagues from across Europe in the central Portuguese city of Coimbra. The education department in this city was the host for a study visit under the European-funded Transversal programme. I joined 15 others - headteachers of primary, secondary and special needs schools, local authority officials and national inspectors from across Europe - to learn how the Portuguese and our various countries try to prevent school drop out and failure.

Most of the week was spent in very intensive visits to see the New Opportunities in Education programme in action. It has two target audiences: young (sometimes very young) people assessed as at risk of school failure or drop out; and adults who have left school with no or limited qualifications.

It's fair to say that the group was more convinced by the arrangements to support returning adults than those to support young people assessed as being at risk of drop out from school.

Dramatic differences

One dramatic difference between the Portuguese approach and the Scottish is the age at which pupils can access alternative courses. Young, low-achieving pupils have psychologists to help them, but can enter New Opportunities very young once other support mechanisms have been exhausted. This was illustrated at the first school visited by the group, in an industrial and relatively deprived area of Coimbra. The school was part of a grouping including 10 kindergartens and 22 primaries. In this grouping no less than four out of 51 first cycle classes and three out of 10 second cycle classes (ages six to 11) were already studying alternative curricula. This seemed a very early decision to designate the children as potential drop outs and remove them from the normal curriculum.

These alternative curricula are intended to help pupils reach the appropriate competences for their stage in contexts that have a specific focus. For one project the contexts were languages and social studies, decorative arts and textiles, electricity and wood, and sport studies. We were not uniformly impressed by some of the work we saw, as it was not always clear what the students were actually doing in some classes.

A sceptic might have thought the emphasis was on keeping them happy rather than on growing their learning. But that may have been unfair as we were only there for one afternoon and by definition it became an abnormal day for the school. A second school seemed to have a more constructive approach for its pupils, including the opportunity to spend one day a week at the Hotel and Tourism School. In both schools it was striking that the class sizes were very small, the maximum class size for pupils with learning or behavioural difficulties was 12. This inevitably makes the programme very expensive.

Imaginative work

Some of the work we saw with adult returners was extremely imaginative, using a specific project as a focus around which the learning took place. A religious school in the coastal city of Figueira da Foz catered for a group of women from disadvantaged backgrounds; some may have been the victims of domestic violence. These women were seeking to reach grade-12 qualifications through participation in a course of broad education within the vocational context of social and cultural animation, which would lead them to work with children in nurseries, schools and hospitals.

They had the opportunity to work directly with children of kindergarten age, and we saw them present a puppet show on the theme of dental hygiene to the children, who were obviously entranced by what they saw. The evaluation of their progress is by portfolio, giving the students the opportunity to demonstrate a wide range of skills. This course has the remarkable record that 80 per cent of participants progress to employment.

Another way of adults gaining qualifications is by attending a centre for recognition and validation of vocational and life skills gained since leaving school. The adults present evidence of experiential learning, this being assessed against the competences defined for the school standard they are seeking to obtain. These centres, often located within schools or training centres roughly equivalent to colleges in Scotland, identify any gaps and offer short courses to fill these.

A similar approach

The approach to both target audiences have similar elements:

  • There is an emphasis on developing the whole person, so personal and social development figure as strongly as academic attainment
  • Learning takes place within a vocational context to provide an overall focus for the work. Some of these are familiar to Scots as they can be found in our own Skills for Work courses - ICT, childcare, construction - but others spread more widely as we saw in two separate agricultural educational institutions, one of which specialised in working with physically and mentally handicapped people
  • There was evidence of complex partnership working involving clusters of schools, training centres, health and social agencies, trade associations and employers.

Many of those who attend these visits are teachers, so what is holding you back?

Opportunities for international study visits

Recent Scottish Continuing International Professional Development (SCIPD) study visits to Berlin explored Holocaust education and another to Canada studied innovations in Cooperative Learning.

Visits are planned to Sweden to focus on sustainable development education, Spain to investigate minority languages provision and Ireland to focus on citizenship. Learning and Teaching Scotland is also planning SCIPD visits for Early Years practitioners and on the Homecoming theme.

August 2009