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Staff Development Opportunities as part of a Multilateral Education Project

Focus: School Years

Topic: Personnel Preparation

Rob Jones

Business Education Teacher

The Royal Blind School

Craigmillar Park

Edinburgh

EH16 5NA

Scotland

Tel:       +44 131 667 1100

Fax:      +44 131 662 9700


Email: rjones@royalblindschool.org.uk



INTRODUCTION


Teaching staff do need, on occasions, to meet with colleagues who share relevant experiences. Meeting with others who work in the same field provides a valuable opportunity to discuss problems, reflect on current practices and learn about innovative teaching methods and new resources. These are the cornerstones of any good staff development programme. Yet the possibilities for staff working in special education to meet with such colleagues are limited compared to those in mainstream education simply because there are fewer staff working in the same specialised field. The Royal Blind School in Edinburgh met this challenge thanks to its involvement in a European Education Project which was undertaken with two other European schools for the visually impaired.


Background


In 1998 the Royal Blind School met with 2 other schools for the visually impaired to prepare a curriculum based European Education Project. These schools were the Landesschule Für Blinde und Sehbehinderte, Neukloster, Germany and the High School for Visually Impaired Students, Prague, Czech Republic. At the time of the meeting, each of the nations involved was experiencing change to its political landscape. The Czech Republic had undergone the Velvet Revolution whilst Scotland had decided to devolve power from Westminster. East and West Germany were, on the other hand, reconstructing a unified country. The central theme of exploring the cultural heritage which underpinned these momentous changes was chosen as the focus of the work. The title of our European Education Project was agreed as the “Cultural Development of our 3 Nations Delivered Through the Expressive Arts Curriculum”.

As well as curriculum based project work, and the fact that all of the schools involved in the project were working in a special field, it was agreed very early on that the opportunity to increase teacher mobility would form a large part of project activity.

Following the preparatory meeting, a successful application for funding through the EU Comenius Programme was submitted. The project ran for 3 years in total.

Teachers who chose to become involved in the project were given the opportunity to travel to a partner school. Not only did they have the chance to teach there, but also opportunities for observation and discussion with colleagues were included. In addition, the scheme also provided the chance for Senior Management Team members to participate in study visits and, though not funded by the project directly, led to a pupil exchange.


Impact on Staff Development


In order to gauge the impact of a teacher placement, staff were requested to complete an evaluation questionnaire on their return.

Staff who participated in a placement were all very positive and appreciated the opportunity to learn about and experience a different culture. They found meeting new colleagues and pupils stimulating.  However, as valuable as broadening horizons is, it is important that staff had learned something new which they could apply in their own classrooms.

It was reassuring, that despite the differences between the schools, not only in terms of teaching culture but also in the degree of disability of the pupils, staff from the Royal Blind School could illustrate how they had developed professionally. Though they did not state that they had acquired knowledge of new teaching methods and practices as a result of a visit, something just as valuable was learned. They gained the understanding that what they are doing in the classroom at the moment is good practice, something that specialist staff working in a special field seldom have the opportunity to confirm. This was well summed up by the Art teacher: “The opportunity to discuss the problems associated with the unusual nature of my job with another art teacher working in the same field was very valuable. It is reassuring to discover that problems are similar and similar solutions have been found to deal with them”. This was corroborated by the Drama teacher who expressed how valuable it was to discover that teaching materials and style developed in relative isolation were still appropriate in a different context. The teacher of Physical Education who visited Neukloster went further in stating that the teaching placement confirmed: “the universality of teaching in special schools and meeting the needs of pupils with disabilities”.

There were, however, some concerns about the impact of the project.  The Modern Languages teacher, although conceding that the project was not about language learning, felt it did put across the idea that “English gets you anywhere”. Since the project was conducted for the most part in English, this is a fair criticism.

In addition, one could challenge whether there really is a need for the Royal Blind School to send its staff abroad to meet with other colleagues who work in the same field. What about links with schools in the rest of the UK? There are, of course, a number of other schools for the visually impaired across the country and our School does have well established links with a number of them.  Yet involvement at European level provides a whole new range of experiences for all those involved.

From the results of the questionnaire, it is clear that the positives of the project far outweighed any negative aspects. In fact, staff involved in the project have stated that they are keen to be involved in future schemes. For other schools which have not yet taken part in a European school project, what are the steps to becoming involved?


ORGANISING A COMENIUS SCHOOL PROJECT


Overview of the Comenius Programme

Comenius is part of Socrates, the EU Action for education. It is composed of 3 sections:

Comenius 1: School Partnerships

Comenius 2: Staff Development

Comenius 3: Thematic Networks

The Royal Blind School’s project was funded under the School Project subdivision of Comenius 1. The goal of Comenius 1 is to support multinational partnerships between schools in order to enhance the European Dimension of the curriculum. In order to qualify for support, a School Project must involve at least 3 schools from at least 3 different countries. The schools must be located in either an EU member country or one of the accession countries. Eligible organisations can include nursery, primary, secondary and special schools as well as sixth form and further education colleges. Projects can run from 1 to 3 years.

Local Agencies

Comenius 1 is a decentralised action in that it is managed, not by Brussels, but at a local level by agencies such as The British Council. The contact details of participating national agencies can be found on the European Union’s Socrates web site. The first step towards getting involved in a project is to make contact with the appropriate agency.

Preparing a Project Application

Finding Partners

Schools wishing to be part of a Comenius School Project must find at least 2 eligible schools also wanting to take part. Potential partners can be found on an Internet partner database called PartBase (www.partbase.eupro.se). Alternatively, schools can approach their national agency to find out if a partner finding seminar is being organised or they can, of course, approach potential partner schools directly. 

Preparatory Meeting

Once a group of schools has come together and agreed to work on a Comenius 1 School Project, the next step is to arrange a Preparatory Visit for which financial support is available. Preparatory visits can take place at any time of the year, providing that an application for funding is made to the national agency 6 weeks prior to the meeting taking place.

The aim of a preparatory visit is to bring teachers from each of the partner schools together in order to agree the:

At the end of the preparatory meeting, the schools should be able to submit an application to each of their respective national agencies. The deadline for submission varies but it is either 1 February or 1 March. The results of whether the project has been successful or not is announced in late May or early June.


Financing a Project


The budget for a School Project is divided into two parts: Standard amount and the Variable amount.

Standard Amount

The Standard amount is to be used by each school on project activities not related to the mobility of staff or pupils. It can be used to meet the costs of purchasing resources for use in the project, producing project documentation, linguistic preparation or translation and for general administration.

The amount each school receives as part of the Standard amount depends on the role of the school in the project. Schools appointed as coordinating school will receive €2,000 whilst partner schools will receive €1,500 per annum.

Variable Amount

This amount of the budget relates to the mobility of staff. The amount available will vary according to demand. National agencies will try to meet a proportion of the cost, but it will depend on the number of schools applying and the overall budget available to the national agency. The types of visits for which funding is available includes Project Coordinator Meetings, Teacher Exchanges or Placements and Head Teacher Study Visits.  All travel and insurance costs will be met and between 50-75% of the subsistence costs will be reimbursed, based on a weekly allowance.

The variable nature of this part of the budget means that school can decide on how many staff placements and exchanges they need to organise in order to meet the aims of the project. Usually schools can organise up to six visits per year.

The budget for the project is awarded as follows:

80% at the start of the project

20% on completion of the year, subject to submitting end of year report and accounts.


Running the Project


Schools must decide at the preparatory meeting which one will act as coordinating school and which will take the role of partner schools. The coordinating school is responsible for the overall management of the project to ensure that the agreed work plan will be achieved and to act as a point of contact for the project as a whole. In addition, each school must appoint a member of staff to act as Project Coordinator to manage the project including: keeping account of project expenditure, compiling end of year reports, attending conferences and providing feedback to other members of staff.

For projects running for more than one year, an application for renewal must be submitted each year.


Sources of Information


More information on the Comenius Programme, including details of national agencies can be found at www.europa.eu.int/comm/education/socrates/comenius/index.html.


IMPACT OF A COMENIUS SCHOOL PROJECT ON THE ROYAL BLIND SCHOOL


Without a doubt, the major achievement of the project has been the introduction of a much greater level of awareness of different European cultures throughout the school.  Both teachers and pupils have met and/or communicated with peers from the partner schools. They have been able to share experiences and learn from one another. Awareness of what life is like in the partner countries has increased significantly. Broadening the horizons of both staff and pupils by experiencing cultures different from their own is today more important than it has ever been.

The project has also inspired other work, incidental to that taking place as part of the project. Pupils have been keen to explore issues such as the effect Europe has on our everyday lives and the arguments for and against joining the Euro. Both these topics have been included in whole school assemblies prepared and delivered by pupils.

The opportunity for staff to visit and work in partner schools has been essential to the success of the project. Teaching in a partner school challenges staff to adapt their style and resources to suit a different learning environment. The teaching placement removes, for a short while, the day-to-day routine of teaching and provides the chance for reflection and self-evaluation.  Very often staff have come back to the home school refreshed and re-energised. The ‘value for money’ of these staff development opportunities has been excellent with exciting opportunities for both pupils and staff delivered at very modest cost. Perhaps the experience might have been a little more valuable if the schools had been a little more closely matched. The Royal Blind School’s drama teacher found the whole experience extremely positive. Yet because neither of the partner schools had made much use of drama in their curriculum, prior to her visit, she found the experience tended to be ‘one way’ when it came to classroom practice.

Pupil visits have also greatly enhanced the project. The opportunity to visit another European school and city provide valuable real-life learning experiences for pupils.

It is also important not to overlook the friendship that has developed between all the partner schools involved in this project. Based on our experience, The Royal Blind School can recommend without hesitation becoming involved in a Comenius School Project.


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