“What do kids want from a school?” This was a question posed to school pupils across the country in a recent study published in an article I read recently. Secondary pupils chose:
1. Range of extra-curricular activities (Superb wealth and breadth of opportunities)
2. Great and supportive teachers (Mostly)
3. Safe and supportive community (Most pupils report this to be the case)
4. Great facilities (Unquestionably)
5. Enjoyable, personal and practical lessons (On the whole)
6. Mutual respect between pupils and teachers (Work in progress)
7. Great pastoral care and extra support (Our pupils and parents report this to be the case)
8. Diversity, equality and inclusion of the pupil body (On track but with further improvement on the way)
9. Range of subjects (One of the most extensive in the country)
10. High aspirations and encouragement to get the best results. (It’s our vision for all)
* Comments in brackets my assessment of OHS)
As it is with so many articles and studies published, the job of the Heidie is to consider what is being reported and to determine what if anything can be learned from this new found knowledge to continually seek improvements for their schools. We also have to think about the motivation, bias and agenda of studies and articles and not all are as they seem.
In the case of this list, whilst I was surprised by the order of some points, I was not surprised at all by the content. I am not so sure that my pupils would have placed extra-curricular activities at the top or high expectations in tenth place. I must ask them. At the moment however, based on our pupil surveys and from the on-going one to one meetings pupils have with their Guidance staff or from discussions arising from focus groups we hold, I believe our pupils place good lessons and good relationships at the top of the list, with an emphasis on staff looking after pupils as well as teaching them “stuff”. It is for this reason that our school improvement plan this year has a very clear health and well being focus for in the class, as well as holistically across the school. In my opening welcome address to staff in August, followed up with management meetings with Principal Teachers and Depute Head Teachers, I have made it clear that we have gone through years of developing the content material and assessment instruments in subject areas (necessary with the introduction of the new national qualification) but that we now must focus on understanding more about the lives and consequently the mindsets, the home-life experiences, prior learning and interests of individuals, which can then be used to more tailor individualised learning. Whilst learning more about the youngsters in our care and having a greater appreciation of their backgrounds, skills and desires I believe it impacts on how teachers interact with our youngsters and can lead to a greater degree of mutual respect. If we achieve this goal we cross off seven of the ten items pupils placed in the top ten things pupils want from school. As we have definitely achieved the great facilities, the range of subjects and a breadth of extra-curricular subjects already, we’re on track but not quite there.
As we progress through our improvement plan in an effort to achieve our goals we must of course use self evaluation to test our success and use analytical tools at our disposal, not to beat ourselves up with if we don’t do so well at any given time or with any particular issue but to determine what we need to do next, what to fix, identify what needs to be introduced or even reintroduced. Our self evaluation centres on the concept of analysing statistical data, seeking peoples views and observing first hand what we hope to see in our lessons and in our relationships. The triangulation of this evidence ensures our Litmus test is accurate and ensures the follies of the human psyche are avoided.
Eh? The trouble with any evaluation is that both positive and negative results are found. In every case. Depending on an individual’s mindset then the subjective view and consequential reaction can be useful or indeed catastrophic to developing the next steps in a development. In simple terms, if ones glass is half full, then the next steps will likely lead to a positive change; if ones glass is half empty, then the next steps could dramatically veer away from a continuous natural development of an initiative and lead an improvement plan that slips, twists and turns like a baby deer on an ice pond.
How do we caution against such misjudgement of our evaluations. Be honest, realistic and pragmatic. If we observe a lesson that has not gone well. Pass on the advice to help the next lesson but appreciate that not every lesson can go well. Go back and check to ensure this is not a common occurrence. If we analyse a set of homework results, departmental results or whole school figures, use the information gathered and ask questions around what went well but if they didn’t, identify possible improvements whilst accepting statistics cannot go up and up and up every year, it’s not natural. Go back and check for trends.
And finally in the trio, remember that when seeking people’s views on anything, that humans are all different. Some are left wing, some politically right; some are moral, some are not; some are Religious, some Atheist; some believe the world is round and some believe it is flat. As everyone has a different view on every aspect of life then so some will have a different view on what we do. We may think we have done well (and other evidence will suggest or even prove it) but there will always be some people with a different view on what success is and therefore be critical of our achievements. These views should not be ignored but they should not be held above all the other evidence. Those who shout loudest should not win just because they shout the loudest (almost exclusively by those whose views did not win); but equally the majority view should not always steer the course. If a Head Teacher believes that something is in the best interests of a pupil or pupils based on their values, then that course should be steered. My values are based on the need to ensure that all our pupils have equal opportunities to all we provide; that we care for them (often with tough love); and that we ensure they will leave us with the necessary knowledge, skills and experiences necessary to make their way in life and work.
All schools and the HMIe should, and of course we do, use Education Scotland’s “How good is our school 4? ” to carry out their self-evaluation. More recently there has been a pupil focused version “How good is OUR school? We have begun to use this document in staff groups / discussions. I would encourage all educationalists to use it. There is already some schools slightly ahead of us in this regard and I am aware we can learn from The Royal High, led by an excellent Head Teacher, Pauline Walker, and we are sending staff and pupils there next week having been invited to a conference focusing on encouraging and supporting pupils to be more actively engaged.
So this week I started with a wee debate around this issue contained within an article in the Times Educational Supplement, merely to demonstrate another aspect of what all educational leaders do: keep up to date with current research and debates and contribute. It’s how we learn. Next up is what I’ve been up to this week. I’ll keep it reasonably brief.
The highlight of last Monday came in the evening when the Parent Council gathered in the Conference Room for the first meeting of the new session. Presentations of the success of recent Parent Council activities, for example fund raising for the school or supporting the school’s focus groups, appointment of Deputes and recommendations to the School Improvement Plan were all acknowledged. Indeed, the most up-to-date Plan was shared by Kevin Champion, alongside presentations on our Pupil Equity Fund plan to help close the poverty related attainment gap by Aileen Jackson (PT, Raising Attainment) and a presentation by Alex Craik on our initial SQA successes and improvement agenda.
There was also an item on how to raise the profile of the Parent Council. I have to note a huge thank you to all those who attend and contribute to the work of the Parent Council. They are small in number but they do demonstrate a commitment that does help make a difference. Why are they small in number? It is my understanding from discussions with Heidies the length and breadth of the country that if you are in trouble, parents are knocking down the doors to attend, otherwise people with very busy lives are content to let others with a keen interest in such work carry on. Similar to the above, this is an entirely natural occurrence and one which is replicated in any walk of life where a community seeks membership of working committees. We still strive to get more in the door however.
On Tuesday I chaired the Education Budget Group in the morning before returning to school in the afternoon to host the weekly meeting of staff. The role of the Budget Group is to suggest ways in which we can run Education more efficiently thereby saving money without impacting on a quality service. This has been an annual task for all Councils, especially since the economic downturn in 2008. Argyll and Bute Council like every other Council has been forced to cut its budget over the years and we have seen some impact on this in the school’s. However, like my analogy above, if one’s glass is half full we will note that our breadth of curriculum has expanded, our recent results have shown some of the highest success stories since our new records commenced in 1991 and our Positive Destination figures are above all comparators, as do the Argyll and Bute figures. Sometimes a cut in services leads to a change in direction that has a positive impact, and sometimes at less cost. People fear and criticise change but it is not always bad. The world and life moves on. It is how we address the changes that demonstrates our ability to succeed in whatever we do… in our case supporting and educating our young people.
Wednesday began on a similar financial vein as I met with my Administration and Finance Assistant to discuss staffing and budgets. It was also a day for touring classes and checking in on some of my new teachers, making sure they were settling in and that they are being well looked after by their managers colleagues, and indeed pupils. I am glad we do not have the same level of pupil led mischief with new teachers now as we did when I was at school. I have yet to hear any stories about switched nameplates, jotters and homework and I did not come across any of the new teachers being led off track with the pupils attempting to find out more about them. Of course the pupils have little interest really beyond avoiding that days work.
I did however fall into that trap myself (schoolboy error?) as when checking on pupil progress I got drawn into a debate with pupils on whether or not the Police in both American and in London were institutionally racist. Being a typical teacher I kept playing Devils Advocate to encourage greater depth to the argument which led to the Science teacher chucking me out so she could get on with her human genome lesson. I think I have a Detention of Monday to attend.
Thursday morning saw one of the busiest days we have had in our Atrium at break and lunch. In the old canteen we could only hold around 200 pupils, it was very busy and to be honest, although the food was good, the environment was no where near as pleasant as in the new school. The new Atrium is bright, spacious, modern looking and together with the Terrace area holds around 450 seated pupils. We have so many pupils now taking up breaks and lunch that our takings have shot up dramatically and we have been forced to redesign the serving system to improve the flow. This change ensure that we can serve up to 400 pupils in just over 10 minutes.
The numbers in the Atrium increase yet further as pupils return from “down the street” in the run up to the start of afternoon classes and we have 500 to 600 pupils in the central social areas of the school. When the first warning bell sounds at 2.05 our six supervising teachers have five minutes to shift that pupils in an orderly fashion towards their classes ready for lessons commencing at 2.10 pm. This also involves clearing tables of food and rubbish, getting youngsters to cease their no doubt enjoyable chats and get their heads out of their phones. I have to say that such a mammoth task is accomplished daily for most, nearly for some. Most impressive is the respect and good banter that occurs between teachers and hundred of youngsters not keen on giving up their social time in favour of lessons; and I’m not sure how many other schools have teachers actually going round with rubbish bags to help youngsters find the bins. Thanks again to all my teachers who are reading this.
Friday: emails and paperwork with a few staff and pupil issues to contend with. Not every school day holds a story worthy of a blog.
However, one personal event on Friday is an event that will be familiar to some parents and will come to many more. On Friday evening my daughter Anna settled into her new Halls of Residence as she started university. I am so very proud of all her accomplishments both in and out of school. I am positive that everything she learned about the subject she is about to study (History) and the lessons in life achieved through her involvement with things like the Brownies; the Pipe Band; the school’s Rugby Team; her trips to New York and the Battlefields; her involvement on the Laurinburg Exchange; or her role as Fingal Clan Leader, will all prepare her with the next stage in her life.
If there are two pieces of advice I would give to all parents, they would be to encourage your children to take advantage of all the opportunities life has to offer; and secondly spend as much time and love on them as you can before they fly the nest.
Remember this is a personal blog about my life as a Heidie (and this week a Dad), so it will regularly have my views as well as my experiences.