Who wants a job, a promotion… a holiday?

So, what have I been up to in the last fortnight?

Well I spent Saturday morning advertising for new staff. In addition to the adverts recently placed for Science, PE and Admin staff, I am now looking for teachers of Art, Music, English, Maths, RE, Business, Languages and Technical. Here’s the link and introduction I gave to all these. Feel free to share to as many people as possible so we have as great a pool of candidates to choose from as possible.


Oban High School is a large, successful, innovative and inspirational school where pastoral care, vocational accomplishment and academic attainment are all priorities; consequently the Positive Destinations for our young people are excellent. Set in an area of outstanding natural beauty but within easy reach of Glasgow, as well as the Highlands and Islands, we are ideally placed for those who like a rural lifestyle but still want access to a major city. We have a regular train and ferry service as well as an airport. We offer successful candidates a comprehensive support package including staff accommodation to help you settle, on-going professional development opportunities tailored to the individual and are proud of our leadership programme which has allowed many of our staff to go on to become Principal Teachers, Deputes and Head Teachers. Please look at both our website and Facebook page to get a feel of what it would be like to work in such a fantastic, vibrant and friendly school community.

I should have also mentioned that we are moving into a state of the art brand new school with what I have been told has the best indoor PE facilities of any school in the UK and the best Performing Arts facilities of any school in Scotland. It’s funny how you can miss the large things on your doorstep.

Well that was my most recent job but if I jump back a bit to when we came back from our mid term break (which was only ten days ago, time flies!) then I would recall what I believe has been our most well received In Service days for some time. Why? Perhaps because of the variety, the balance between using our own staff and external trainers and/or because we focused on issues our staff really needed and wanted to learn more about.

The days began with an informative session led by David Logan, the Project Manager for our new school build. We are getting close to moving and he and his colleagues had some up to date news regarding our move. Next up was a training session for all the teachers on how to use our new Promethium Smart Boards. Basically huge TV screens that we link to our iPads – a far cry from the old Blackboards and chalk I first used as a fresh faced young teacher. The technology we use today to teach our lessons was never imagined 20 years ago.

As well as learning to use the hardware, my Depute responsible for IT, Iain Fulton, ran a session on how to use a new App we are rolling out to all staff, “Evidence for Learning”. This App allows staff to use their iPads to capture the work of pupils in photos and videos, which is great for sending evidence to the SQA and for keeping records of pupil progress. I am hopeful that when we get used to gathering evidence in the App we will progress quickly to using the share with parents facility. As a parent myself I would far rather receive regular emails showing me the quality of my children’s work than merely get a written paragraph once a year. Granted we have moved to almost monthly tracking reports in recent years.

Technology is a great tool when it works and when people use it properly. Sometimes the technology doesn’t work and sometimes it fails because of human error. Disappointingly, I had to address both issues with regard to our on-line registration processes this week and change the way we deal with taking registers and notifying parents. We have a legal requirement to take a register in the morning and in the afternoon. We are also required to notify parents daily if their child has either not come to school or has left without permission. This can be done by letter but most schools use texts – or phone calls if the school is small enough. We use texts.

The difficultly with accurate registers in a large vibrant school comes from a combination of parents who forget to tell us their child is not coming to school or needs to leave during the day; from teachers who forget to register their pupils at the start of lessons or fail to mark them late, giving the impression they are missing; and of course from the many teenagers who choose to truant for the day or just from a class they don’t like. Schools and teenagers are all alike.

However, it was clear to me that we need to make more use of the technology and so together with my Depute and excellent receptionist Louise I set up a system to ensure we notify parents (three times a day) when we are unaware of why their child is not in school or is not in a class they should be. Teething problems include teachers marking pupils absent despite them sitting in front of the teacher (an irritation for parents); parents not replying to our texts home asking where their children are (an irritation to teachers); and teenagers doing what they often do and not worrying about such things and just coming and going without signing in and out causing both parents and teachers to be irritated. We shall keep working on the issues but to be honest I would rather we always send the texts home in an effort to ensure teachers and parents are aware of when the youngsters are not in classes. Better a mistake saying we are worried where they are and find them, than not send a text and find they are missing and we didn’t try and track them down. I’m positive the system will continue to improve.

Another In-Service training session was delivered by my Depute, Kevin Champion, on the subject of Inter-disciplinary Learning (IDL). Secondary schools are good at teaching subject specific content across a whole range of courses like English, Maths, History, Science etc. However, we do not do enough to deliver lessons which teach subjects and issues across the subjects: teaching in context. I mentioned previously that we have been reviewing the curriculum in the school and one of the changes to be implemented in the new S1 and S2 curriculum shall be the introduction of two periods a week of IDL. Kevin is currently working with staff on agreeing themes and content for these new courses. I always find it fascinating how we can be very good at such initiatives, as we were with IDL about 7-8 years ago, and then be distracted and redirected to other priorities, only to return full circle.

Much of this distraction and redirection comes from the ebbing and flowing of guidance from Education Scotland. Although I have to say in all honestly that I appreciate all the support we get from them, it does not take away the fact that there is a huge number of initiatives and of suggested good practice that they promote. The sheer volume of such guidance can cloud much of the focus a school needs and no matter how much the HMIe say we need to do a few things well, they always measure as on whether we can do many things well or not, so we always try too much, hence the workload issues in schools.

Assessment and moderation is a current countrywide theme and we have been persistently involved in delivering such training to staff for over a year now thanks to the sterling efforts of our in-house Assessment and Moderation Facilitators, Fiona Wilson and Kirsteen Binnie, supported by Guidance from the Authority team. I am always very pleased to see my staff step up to the mark and take on leadership opportunities when they arise; and I am aware that my staff really appreciate having their peers provide the support they need on a regular and on-going basis, rather than the external and expensive one day experts that schools used to use all the time. There is of course still a need for such experts where the expertise does not already exist in schools.

I have also been supporting and encouraging staff to make use of all the new IT we provided through helping them prepare videos for pupils and parents on what subject courses are all about. Now that we have entered the Course Options stage of the year, we would normally produce large booklets listing what is in the courses, what skills can be learned and what a pupil could do with a qualification in that subject in the future. Few people read these tomes I believe. So, similar to the Learning Live and Spark Videos I have been posting, all subject areas were charged with creating information videos. Thomas McCulloch has made an excellent job of helping all the PTs deliver on this task and Iain Fulton has loaded them all on the website under our new Learner Journey section; a great site for pupils and parents to learn about what one needs to become a Vet, teacher, nurse, joiner etc. Such information, supported by evidence from universities and SDS help introduce our communities to new qualifications, new occupations and dispel the myths parents often have: the most common being you need three Sciences to get into university; PE and Drama don’t count as ‘real’ subjects; and you always need a foreign language. Whilst there may have been some truth in these statements in a few universities 30 years ago, it’s all nonsense now.

Universities are generally looking for as high a number of A passes as a student can manage, ideally from one sitting. However every course in every university has different aspirations and one university may insist on 4 As and a B and another 3 Bs and a C for the exact same course. Once this is achieved they want a personal statement that reflects a pupils breath of experience showing they have resilience, independence and can work with others. They like breadth of experience, knowledge and skills on the whole.

And of course, most youngsters do not go to university so it is important to note that employers whilst using basic entrance requirements like an insistence on having Higher English and National 5 Maths are much more interested in the skills and experiences our youngsters have accumulated during their school years.

Some of you may be aware I have not always been a teacher and held leadership/managerial positions in the Civil Service, service Industry and in retail before entering teaching. In my time as a manager I can safely say that when recruiting I was much more concerned about how a potential employee came across as a person and whether they were keen to learn and had demonstrated this through their prior experience, than I was in the number of qualifications they had. Strength of character cannot be taught, knowledge and skills can.

I am so pleased that a Curriculum for Excellence and the Government’s Developing the Young Workforce agenda places skills development at the heart of what we are trying to achieve and they recognise this needs to be nurtured in primary schools and early secondary, rather than wait until the pupils are about to leave secondary school as used to be the case.

Which reminds me of another job I have to do during February and March. Oban High School has 19 partner primaries across what is one of the largest geographical catchment areas in Scotland. Every year at this time, I start to tour as many of the Primary schools as my diary permits. I really enjoy visiting our primary pupils and discussing with the P7s in particular what Oban High School has to offer and describing life in our school. I do this along with my Guidance teachers in an effort to answer all their questions and try and put their minds at rest that coming to high School is not scary but enjoyable and that we will look after them as well as help them to develop all the important skills mentioned earlier.

I also offer evening sessions for parents where we go over the same issues as we did with the pupils in their classes. These sessions are followed up by more visits by pupils to our school if they need it but with everyone again in June. More on that experience in another blog no doubt.

As well as leading my own school and taking the time to visit our friends in the primaries I have also been involved a few leadership meetings last week. First on the agenda was attending the HT Advisory Group. This group was set up by Anne Paterson, the Head of Education about a year ago and is really beginning to take shape now. It allows for Head Teachers from across Argyll and Bute to come together to share our knowledge and experience with the Head of Education in an effort to produce management decisions that are in the best interests of all our pupils across the Local Authority. We discuss ideas to improve learning and teaching; staff development; how to deal with budgetary and staffing issues; and share individual experiences each have gained from our travels across the country, bringing together the most up to date initiatives and thinking with regard to all aspects of education.

I also met with the Self-evaluation Group this week to look at our continuing aims for the new School Improvement Plan. Of course before writing a new plan we do need to evidence our aims and they group agreed to split into two for the next five weeks, with one group beginning to explore developments in our staff observation policy; whilst the other has a focus on improving the level and quality of our pupil engagement in the learning process. Again, I am very pleased by the leadership shown by many of my staff in taking multiple ideas forward within this group. No wonder so many of our staff go on to get promotions.

I am leading the pupil engagement strand of this group but we already have a high degree of such activity and I was reminded of this on Friday when we gathered together almost 100 pupils to work through a questionnaire on five key areas in the school: Feeling of inclusion and attendance issues; participation in school activities; active engagement in lessons / learning; and how to increase attainment.

Most of the meetings I have been involved in over the last ten days however have focused on tracking pupil performance, given the Prelims have just finished and what we need to do to set up further support. This will come in the form of further weekly study support, though sadly numbers have already dropped again – if only pupils would keep going every week, their grades would rise in the final exams! There will also be further Easter Revision thanks to the extra money we got from the Council for this purpose.

I have also been advised that we will receive more Pupil Equity Funding money from the Scottish Government next session. This year we spent the money on employing a Youth Development Worker and an Educational Psychologist to help with supporting and nurturing our youngsters. We also used the money to supplement our breakfast Club (which was also funded by D&K Lafferty’s generous support); our homework club; and literacy and numeracy programmes. I am currently gathering evidence to determine the success of these initiatives in closing the poverty related attainment gap for which the funding was to be used for.

I mentioned D&K Lafferty being a kind contributor to our school. We have a few. Another is the Argyllshire Gathering who both pay a large contribution to the Piping tuition in the area and provide us with all the marques (and a solid silver Heavies trophy) for our annual Highland Games. Much of the finance for this generosity comes from the profits from the Oban Games, which is why I am a keen and willing member of the Games Committee which met this week. At that meeting we discussed increasing the involvement of our Traditional School of Music and School of Dance pupils at the Games this year so that we can give them another chance to show off their fantastic talents to an international audience.

Finally in my wee story of what a Heidie gets up to each week, it was back to the chalk face and I have had my head back in the text books trying to keep one step ahead of all my clever Advanced Higher History pupils. So with that in mind, I better get back to reading, “Germany: 1866-1945 by Gordon A. Craig. A little light reading before bed.


Rural recruitment issues in education.

I know we are now into the new term by a couple of weeks but a belated Happy New Year to all my blog readers in any case. I’m very grateful to all those who read my wee stories to learn more about what a Heidie does. Indeed since October nearly 6000 of you have been keeping up to date with what is going on in OHS and across Scottish education.

The term started with mixed emotions. I am so pleased that I had the opportunity to welcome a very experienced teacher, Monty Reid to our Maths department, whilst at the same time saying a sad farewell to Crawford Inglis from our Technology Department. Crawford is an excellent teacher and I wish him well in his new career. Of course in a huge school like ours there are many changes… and challenges. We have just appointed a new Technician, crucial to the smooth running of the classes and Stefano Gallucio starts next Monday. A well known face in our community, Ewen Munro, previously of H2O has now commenced work as one of our Youth Development Workers and he along with Joan Reynolds will support Guidance Teachers, our after school homework club and the 3 Ts initiative, that D&K Lafferty sponsor, where any pupil can come in early and get a free breakfast and help with their work every morning from 8.30 a.m. I am pleased to have them both on board given how long these posts have been vacant.

I’m often asked about vacancies and why it takes so long to get staff to fill them. The same issues apply to all staff… and the same issues apply in every rural school across the country. As soon as someone writes to me with their resignation and tells me of their promotion, career change or retirement, I ask the Council’s HR department to submit a request to advertise to the Head of Education, who in turn has to check with the Council’s Finance department that I have enough money in the budget to pay for a member of staff. Thereafter the approved post is sent to both the TESS (a teachers’ national publication which advertises almost all the jobs in Scotland) and My Job Scotland which all posts are advertised on and where applications are submitted on line. Depending on what day of the week such advert requests are received will depend on which week an advert will appear. At this stage in the recruitment process it is possible for a member of staff to have given their 4 week notice and we are 2-3 weeks on… through no fault of any one person or department.

Almost all adverts stay in the press and on-line for 2 weeks to maximise the chances of a potential candidates seeing the advert. At the close of the adverts, HR gathers the paperwork and emails them to me the very next day. I then share them with those who will be on the interview panel and the panel spend a couple of days deciding who to call for interview. We then have to give the candidates at least a week’s notice to allow them to make travel arrangements. When we have interviewed all the candidates we then decide who to appoint on the day of the interview (almost every time). The next stage is to seek references from the successful candidate and of course everyone working with children have to go through what is referred to as PVG. This can take up to 6 weeks depending on the time of year or complications getting background checks done. As soon as we have the PVG confirmation they can start immediately. When we appoint staff from England and elsewhere we also have to offer the job subject to their approval by the General Teaching Council of Scotland as no teacher can work in Scotland without such approval. This can take around a month. Then there is the issue of staff we employ from England having to give a whole term of notice so that adds an extra 3-4 months to the delay.

Occasionally, we employ staff from overseas and a further check is required on whether or not they have a Visa. This complicates matters further as some candidates need the offer of a job first before they can apply for their Visa, so we can end up going through the whole recruitment process, offer someone a job and then wait a month or so to find out the Visa was declined even although they have GTCS and PVG clearance. This happened most recently to a member of staff we employed in Science some months ago and we have had to re-advertise the position once again, 3 months later.

Some may ask: “Well if it takes so long to get a teacher from England or overseas, why not just employ Scottish teachers and get them here quicker?” The answer to this is quite simply that we will appoint the best teacher we possibly can for the benefit of our pupils for years to come and not just take someone who is perhaps less experienced, qualified and talented because we can get them into school a month or two quicker.

Of course this discourse is only relevant when we are discussing posts that we can fill because we have enough applicants. There are particular posts which struggle to attract candidates nationally, far less in rural areas. It is almost impossible for find a Home Economics teacher, anywhere. There are simply not enough trained in the colleges. Science and Technical teachers remain rare and in the 10 years I have been in Oban High School I cannot recall where I have not had to advertise at least 3 times on every vacant post for these subjects (occasionally 4 times) resulting in even longer delays in appointing.

So how do Scottish schools manage the problem of attracting staff to vacancies and getting them filled as quickly as possible? Some Councils have a supply list of staff and when a vacancy arises then the supply staff are sent to the school by the Council. This works better with Primary Teachers where there are lots of similar vacancies and in a few high schools for providing general supply. It does not work at all for filling long term subject specific vacancies in high schools because of the huge variety of subjects taught. We offer over 40 different senior options in Oban High School. There is no employer anywhere in the world who could have supply teachers on tap for such a wealth of choice. In addition to this issue, unlike in the central belt where a supply teacher could be used across 10 local schools all close together, it simply cannot happen in any great number in rural areas where the next nearest high school is an hour away.

Further, such a solution as described above is based on the premise that there are actually supply teachers on a Council’s list and that they want to work full time filling vacancies. From my discussions with colleagues across the country getting supply teachers in at all to fill vacancies is exceptionally difficult, getting them to work part-time or for many weeks in a row is also difficult because many supply teachers are either retired teachers or part-time working parents who will not or cannot commit.

Another recent example of a Council trying to go the extra mile to recruit can be found in Aberdeen and Moray I believe, where they are now offering a “Golden Hello” for some posts – an additional £4-5k up front to get teachers to favour these rural areas over the central belt. I am positive this strategy will have worked on occasion but is clearly not the full answer given the number of vacancies and the continued problem of supply still found and of course all such deals come with “hand cuffs” keeping staff in their employ for a couple of years – not suitable for filling Maternity, long-term illness or vacancies caused by the 4 week resignation – 3 month appointment time.

Some of the solutions we in Oban High School employ are unique to us, some are used by all. We are the only state school I am aware of who have established their own subsidised staff accommodation to help attract staff to the area. I established this to cope with the issue of me appointing staff in June, only to find they would decline the post in August when the learned how difficult it is to get accommodation in a hugely popular and busy tourist destination. Additionally, we offer re-location expenses of up to £5k to encourage staff to move to this beautiful part of the world. Obviously they only access this facility when moving for permanent positions.

Even after offering the accommodation and financial incentives we do, we still struggle to attract staff to our successful school in the heart of a beautiful and vibrant area. Why? There are simply not enough suitably qualified teachers in some core subjects and even when there are, most prefer to stay in the central belt with the attractions and amenities that it provides.

From my discussions with teachers from across Scotland, with Government Ministers and with representatives from Education Scotland, the GTC and School Leaders Scotland, it is clear that there is a national crisis in staffing in rural areas in particular and in certain secondary subjects all across the country. Until this issue is resolved nationally, schools will be left with many classes full of children without a subject specialist teacher in front of them for many weeks, months and indeed in one other authority I am aware of for well over a year or more.

You may wish to know how we cope with such issues here in Oban. A few examples. We currently have a maternity vacancy in Gaelic which we are unable to fill because there are no suitable applicants willing to move here for a short term role. Our solution was to work with the Education Service and provide lessons on-line via a programme called e-Sgoil in partnership with Highland Council. We have a vacancy in Science (I mentioned earlier we filled it but a problem with a Visa led to yet another re-advert) and currently all our Science staff have had their timetables filled in an effort to maximise the amount of time pupils get Science specialists and not only supply teachers.

We also have two vacancies in Technical, one which arose in the Summer and which, like Science, are being covered internally by the remaining Technical teachers working beyond their normal hours to ensure the pupils get a qualified teacher on the whole. The second vacancy arose in December and was filled quickly but with a member of staff not available until August, causing us to have a short term vacancy in a subject which usually takes 6 months or more to fill. To make matters worse, this particular vacancy leaves us having to cover Engineering Science, which is a subject with even fewer qualified teachers that Home Economics. We also have an Art vacancy and a Support Teacher vacancy, both filled by qualified staff for much of the time, but not all. The remaining time we use our own internal cover arrangements like every school across the land.

With the knowledge that we have these staffing issues we have been working hard on long term solutions over the years. The staff accommodation and the relocation expenses are not insignificant enticements. We have, where possible linked with other schools to offer subject specific support across colleagues in other schools; though this requires the agreement of teachers to work after school to help pupils from another school as timetables between schools do not match. We have also used colleges to provide distance learning via the internet; but this requires college tutors to be available at the same time as all the pupils. If planned months in advance, this can work for small numbers. Forward planning also allows us to use our very close and successful partnership with the excellent Argyll College to run courses we find ourselves unable; though colleges also face the same recruitment issues as rural schools do and it is sheer luck if they have surplus when we have a shortage.

It has been noted that using social media as a way of attracting staff to the area works well. There are some successful examples of this having worked for a couple of primary schools in our area recently. We have a Facebook page, we use Twitter and we have our own You Tube Channel. We make our own in-house videos and use them to sell the school and Argyll / Oban as a beautiful place to live. However, if there are no specific subject teachers out there then no matter how much advertising one does, we won’t get any. What the social media campaigns do is attract even more potential recruits to the jobs where we have candidates and this increases the chance of getting the “best” candidate.

To enhance this opportunity further we have been fortunate to have had a local company Uncommon Knowledge work in partnership with us to run our media campaigns on our behalf and we hope their knowledge and experience will help yet further.

Finally, I have already managed to recruit from Northern Ireland and am due to visit Stranmillis College (part of Queen’s University) near Belfast next week in an effort to recruit more staff from an excellent university.

So, what does a Heidie do? …. Spend lots of time trying to recruit staff with the support of colleagues in school, within the Council, across Scotland and abroad.

I find it very frustrating that we have pupils who have an interruption to their learning due to staffing issues but equally pleasing we have so many staff willing to go the extra mile to help and support them by teaching classes beyond their maximum class contact; doing extra study support after school, during weekends and holidays; being available by email at all times of the night.  I am very lucky to have so many good staff… I just wish I had more.


Whoosh! That is the sound of the last 10 days whizzing by in Oban High School. I’m not even sure where to start in describing the fabulous efforts of our school community. Perhaps with a round of applause to all our talented musicians from our School of Traditional Music who performed so well in front of a great audience in Skipinnish Ceilidh House as part of our St’ Andrew’s Day celebrations. Of course we also have our school orchestra full of talented pupils playing the Violin, Clarinet, Flute, Trumpet, Cello, Saxaphone, Trombone, Glockenspiel and Drums and they have been busy practising for our next musical performances at the Pensioners Treat and the Christmas Cracker Concert (both on Tuesday 19th December) as well as our end of term Christmas Services (Friday 22nd December). I must practice my Trumpet more often, the pupils are far better than I am.

The mere mention of Christmas reminds me of the excitement and anticipation running through the school for the forthcoming highlight of the social calendar – Jingles. Our Senior Pupil Leadership Team, assisted by our newly created Junior Pupil Leadership Team, have been busy preparing for both the Senior Jingles (Friday 15th) and Junior Jingles (Wednesday 20th). Both are huge events, especially the Senior Jingles, which will be attended by about 400 of our senior pupils all dressed in beautiful dresses and kilts or smart suits all dancing away under the the silk canopy and bright lights of the Corran Halls to the music of The True Love and Ceol An Aire. 

The pupils have also been busy putting up all our Christmas trees and decorations around the school. Thanks to the Forrestry Commission and Stephen Sloss for arranging our big tree!

It’s not only our pupils who get to dance the night away at these events, our staff too love a Strip the Willow and a Dashing White Sergeant and they were getting some early practice last Friday at the Staff Christmas night out at the Royal Hotel. A great night organised by the staff Social Committee. However, having been watching many of the Social Dance lessons laid on by the PE staff over the last couple of weeks, I have to say the pupils maybe the ones teaching the staff at Jingles.

There was more dancing to be had last Saturday at the Valencia fundraiser at Soroba House. Thanks to Donald Black for his generosity in hosting the event and well done to Colin Carswell and his boys for all the hard work organising the gig. It was well attended by pupils and family/friends from across S4 to S6 and this will mean a good contribution will be made to the Ryan MacPhail Memorial Fund – a brilliant local charity that supports so many worthy causes across the local area.

As well as parents putting on their dancing shoes and attending social events like the Valencia dance, we have seen a large number of parents through our doors this week as they attended the S1 Parents’ Evening (despite the weather). Additionally, we had parents attending our Parental Engagement meeting, where we were sharing curricular models from four schools from across Scotland. We are keen to explore how other schools have moved to a single cohort of pupils in S4, S5 and S6 to ensure they are able to offer more subjects and all within the same level. We already offer probably the broadest curriculum in the country but I feel there is always new ways of working from other successful schools which we can then tailor to meet our individual environment.

We are continuing to look for ways for parents to engage in the life of the school and this week we issued another round of invites to parents to come into the school and sit in on a lesson to get a feel for what we do every day. The parents will also get the chance to ask the teacher about the lessons and learn a wee bit more about how they as parents could perhaps help their children at home.

In addition to inviting parents in to learn about their child’s progress and to see a little of the classroom experience, we are also keen to provide help with a whole range of social issues. On Saturday morning, one of our DHTs, Kevin Champion, ran a session on the subject of resilience and just under 50 parents watched an hour long documentary on this subject and on how adverse childhood experiences can lead to both mental and physical ill health; and more importantly, how we can help to support those facing such issues. We are running an internet / social media safety on line session in January. We are also working on how to get more parental engagement sessions delivered in the wider communities and our Parental Engagement group of staff and parents will tease this out over the coming months.

I was disappointed to have missed our Under 16s Rugby team competing in the final of the Scottish Bowl at Murrayfield against Auckinleck on Wednesday. They played exceptionally well but lost out on a victory in the dying minutes a game which finished 24-21. To reach any Scottish cup final is a fantastic achievement and such experience will serve them well in the next cup they are progressing through after the new year.

I would not normally have missed such an important fixture, having witnessed success and heartache twice before at Murrayfield in recent years with our successful girls rugby team. However, I did have a long standing commitment in my diary to address a large audience of Head Teachers and Depute Head Teachers in Larbert High School on the subject of our senior phase curriculum. As I have previously noted in my blogs, we have an extensive curriculum and one which attracts national interest (and recently international interest). Speaking at such events allows me to showcase the fantastic work done by our pupils, staff and community partners. Just as importantly it allows me to listen to other presenters and learn much about other great initiatives happening all over the country. Scottish Education often takes a lot of flak in the national press however, from experience at attending a range of educational conference and from visiting other schools, I can tell you that such criticism is unfounded. Every school, ours included, may have areas of the complex web that is education to work on and improve but there are so many examples of excellent practice across the country that we can all learn from, if only we listen to what’s going on and seek out good practice.

On the issue of celebrating success and recognising the good things that go on in schools may I suggest to readers that they Look at our Facebook page and have a wee look at our recent posts; including my most recent Learning Live 10 video… and the video entitled “Wow! What a busy year.” made by Dave Berry (Technician and student teacher). You will also notice the list of Head Teacher Commendations I issued to a large number of our pupils this week in recognition of the superb efforts they are putting into the life of the school just now.

This blog is about what it’s like to be a Heidie so just for good measure, all in the last week in addition to the above: I’ve been teaching my classes; been called out in the middle of the night to deal with fire and intruder alarms; set up interviews; advertised for new staff; written reports; answered emails; writtin UCAS references; visited our new school; met with staff about finance, staffing, tracking and monitoring, school events etc; and this week in particular I have spent a long time discussing transport issues with Scotrail, West Coast Motors and the Police. Although the school is not responsible for transport at all, we are very happy to use our contacts / Facebook page to get travel news out to the community. It’s been a busy week.

I will finish by noting that all our pupils, our staff and our parents are all very, very  busy. We are just busy in different ways. Christmas is a busy time of year because of work and because of all the family commitments we have to attend to during the whole festive period. My advice to everyone who mentions how busy they are is for them to remember that sometimes we need to just accept that some times of the year are busier than others and that we have to prioritise what is important; and the most important thing to prioritise is one’s health and one’s family.

I hope all you busy readers keep busy but not too busy you forget to look after yourself and your family and friends.

One last picture, just for good measure: a recipe for Gingerbread Men from our Food Technology Department, who issued this as a Christmas Clan Challenge. Enjoy!!!!



Developing the young workforce: Our journey

One of the developments that has taken place over the years that I am most pleased with is our ability to work with lots of different partners to ensure we provide one of the most extensive curriculums in the country. As well as providing specialist educational programmes through our School of Traditional Music, School of Dance and School of Rugby, we also work with Argyll College, UHI, University of Strathclyde and the Open University to make sure we deliver 40 different courses for our S5/6 and 24 courses for our S4 pupils. However, it’s not just courses we offer but a wealth of experiences which help ensure our youngsters are ready for life after school. We offer this breadth to fulfil our vision of trying to fulfil the aspirations of every youngster who comes to our school.

In 2008 Oban High School’s senior phase (S5/6) programme focused almost exclusively on the provision of Highers with a few bi-level options where necessary, despite the high stay on rate. Vocational education was a strategy centered on those pupils who were likely to leave at the end of S4 or were forced to stay on as Christmas leavers. The agreement with our local further education partner, Argyll College, provided that they would run Skills for Work courses for S3 and S4, most of whom chosen or were placed on these courses because of their desire to leave school at the end of S4. Every S4 pupil experienced one week of Work Experience. This was not an uncommon story across the country. What was uncommon was that up to 40% of our youngsters went straight into employment after school.

With a community that has a wealth of opportunity arising from almost full employment, it was clear a change in direction was necessary; indeed to have more than one direction. Through consultation a new vision was established by the end of the session; a vision that stressed the importance of recognising vocational success as highly as academic success, a vision consistently and persistently repeated to all across the community. The first task added to the new School Improvement Plan was to move all the Skills for Work courses out of the junior school and into the S5/6 curriculum, alongside an insistence that each academic subject must offer two levels of each senior phase course. Immediately this resulted in a far greater degree of appropriate planned choice for those more interested in a vocational pathway as opposed to life at university.

The establishment of a full time Guidance system allowing for more one to one time with pupils ensured Guidance teachers could now work more closely with the Careers Advisors in SDS, local employers and local employment agencies to ensure that pupils received tailored support unique to them and not just based on a norm referenced matrix.

Working alongside some initially interested members of the business community, we then established our Pathways Programme. “Pathways” is open to all S6 pupils who wish to choose it, appropriate S5 pupils (those that are leaving at the end of S5) and targeted S4 pupils (those that are leaving at the end of S4 and are at risk of disengaging from mainstream education). To begin with we had 12 possible vocational placements benefitting up to 30 pupils. We now have around 90 possible placements and around 80 pupils taking up the opportunities on offer. Each community partner has been health and safety checked and receive regular contact from the school. The success of this initiative is only possible because of the generosity of the community partners and because we employee a full time Post 16 Teacher to ensure that all pupils/placements/associated academic work is all on track.
The basic premise is that pupils select an extended work experience placement which is linked to the career aspirations and pathway they have planned when they leave school and they attend this placement for at least a double period each week throughout the academic year. Examples of key employer partners include; Primary Schools, hospital, engineering firms, vets, lawyers, local newspaper, hotels, restaurants, hairdressers and beauty salons. This gives pupils sufficient contact time to build an in depth understanding of this workplace, clarify that this is the profession for them, to develop a wide range of industry specific skills and to attain a reference from a real employer based on real life work experience. For the remaining timetabled periods, pupils attend a class where they choose a minimum two SQA Wider Achievement Awards that they will complete along with a Customer Service Award. In many cases these link directly to the work a pupil is completing on their work placement.

Qualifications offered include: Safe Driver Award, Personal Development, Leadership, Well Being Award, Caritas, Scottish Studies, Scots Language, GCSE Polish, Religion, Belief and Values and Volunteering and Caritas. We are also delivering awards alongside Kelvin College which link into the community work our pupils do.

Recognising and rewarding the commitment of the business community is crucial. We have held a number of business engagement events. “Business Breakfasts” are particularly well received as they allow not only existing partners to come in to see us over an informal bacon sandwich but it also allows potential employers the opportunity to come and hear from others how they can benefit from being involved with the school. Even more important is to take the opportunity to recognize and reward our local business partners. We have held such award ceremonies at both Business Breakfast and end of session pupil award ceremonies alike. Sometimes it’s just nice to be nice and as we speak our pupils are running round the community delivering cards and wee presents to say thank you and Merry Christmas.

Some of the other developments to broaden the curriculum and so ensure relevant learner journeys included building our own Hairdressing Salon; a Cosmetology Suite and an Engineering (mechanics) room; providing financial support to allow up to 10 pupils to go through the Open University’s Young Applicants in School Scheme (YASS); and Baccalauretes are provided for as many pupils who choose to use this academic pathway to help secure their place at a particular university.

Developing learner journeys from the Bread General Education (S1-3) into the senior phase with a specific focus on career progression has been the most recent development for us. We are currently using a skills based software programme called Didbook; we use this alongside all 19 of our Partner Primary Schools. Didbook allows pupils to record and share their achievements; set targets and aspirations; and reflect on their progress in developing a whole range of skills: literacy, numeracy, communication; presentation etc…
Every teacher in every class is now expected to share the skills that can be developed within that lesson to help the pupils see the relevance of what they are learning with not only their discreet subjects but with life and work after school. Once a week, all pupils are given the opportunity to reflect on all the skills they have been developing across the subjects and to record these in Didbook; and in doing so build on their profiles already established in the Primary schools to the stage where they could be crafted into CVs. However more importantly the identification of skills and successes help the pupils to have a far clearer idea of what subjects and courses they should choose for their individual career pathway.

We have a lot of businesses who want us to provide health and hygiene qualifications for example, which we do; we have lots who tell us that what is important is commitment, time keeping, the ability to listen and follow instructions, so we emphasise these skills to pupils. However I think we need to meet and listen to more employers and start to provide many more industry specific courses that could directly enhance a pupil’s chance of getting a job in a particular industry by already meeting a basic requirement of their year one training for example.

However, I’m always keen to hear of any new ideas… pass them along please.

How to succeed in life? Learn from others and let others learn from you.

I would love to visit St’ Petersburg. I have this image in my head that is crystal clear, colourful and enticing. In my mind with absolute clarity I can see the multi coloured spiral towers of the Church of the Saviour; the grand ballroom of the Winter Palace with its abundance of art, opulent decor and the largest sparkling chandeliers one can imagine illuminating a hundred couples dancing a Waltz; whilst outside people meander the snow covered streets in large fur jackets and Cossack hats.

I have two problems, well one problem and one lack of certainty to be precise. I’m not exactly sure how to get there and I’m not too sure that when I do get there that my vision of St’ Petersburg would be mirrored in reality. To solve my first problem is pretty easy: research. I know I would prefer to travel by land and sea rather than fly to ensure I learn as much as I can on the journey, so I shall need to work on a route map; choose which countries to visit, more specifically, which roads to travel and which towns and cities to stop at. I will need to read many reports and guides to get an understanding of the dangers to be faced on my travels whilst learning of the most interesting and worthwhile places and events to experience. Listening to the advice of others more knowledgeable than I, both before departing and whilst on route, will ensure I arrive safely and fully appreciate all my destination has to offer.

I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend the School Leaders Scotland (SLS) Conference in Cameron House for two days. Whilst the hotel is lovely, it doesn’t quite match my aspirations to visit the Winter Palace, though the scenery across Loch Lomond I am certain is more beautiful than anything Lake Ladoga has to offer. Now, before all my readers get carried away about the cost, I must point out that I believe the hotel costs are less than a stay in a Premier Inn in Glasgow… which is unable to cater for a conference anyway. This cost is achieved through the discount achieved by SLS booking practically the whole hotel. The second advantage to the senior leaders of education who attend is that such a lovely setting no doubt attracts the very best guests to address and discuss the most pertinent of issues with Head Teachers face to face: John Swinney (Depute First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills); Graeme Logan (Chief Inspector, HMIe); Janet Brown (CEO, SQA); Ken Muir (CEO, GTCS); Gillian Hamilton (CEO, SCEL)… amongst many others.

John Swinney told us he was on a journey and like my journey to St’ Petersburg he has a clarity of vision and can picture the end of the road. However, similarly he is not quite sure how to get there, what exactly he will learn on the road and what dangers he is yet to face. However, what I find pleasing about this particular Cabinet Secretary is that from the presentations he has given thus far and from the questions I and others have set him, he has never wavered from his vision, yet is honest enough to say that the route may have to alter as he continues his research and receives wisdom from others along the not so clear path. Of course like all leaders he will face constant criticism as he is compelled to make decisions about one direction over another, thus always disappointing someone. The most obvious example of this dilemma is illustrated within the Governance Consultation. The Cabinet Secretary sees more autonomy for Head Teachers and their communities as his destination. However the route there is fraught with uncertainty because our Local Authorities and Directors of Education have been responsible for ensuring that schools follow government policy, tempered and adapted by local needs for generations and they are unlikely to universally agree on how far the balance of power should shift; just as Head Teachers cannot agree on how much autonomy and support they need to deliver the high standards of education demanded, quite rightly, by our Cabinet Secretary.

Likewise, the success of the balancing act required to ensure that schools can take forward government education policy under the leadership duality of having a Local Authority as an employer, whilst receiving direction from Regional Improvement Collaboratives remains to be seen. Head Teachers made it very clear at this conference that they do not wish to be legally answerable to two different bodies who may be pulling in different directions and who will with certainty and necessity generate two layers of bureaucracy around exactly the same issues. John Swinney addressed these concerns and noted that together, the Government, the Head Teachers, the Collaboratives and the Local Authorities will work it out. I remain confident.

John Swinney’s keynote message was a repeat of what I have heard more than a few times over the last few conferences I have been invited to attend. So too was Graeme Logan’s presentation as he reiterated the need for collaboration. He also continued to stress the importance of closing the poverty related attainment gap and the need to reduce initiatives coming out of schools and local authorities so we can concentrate on fewer aims and be more successful in a more targeted way. He asked us to make sure we had more Pathways for youngsters in the BGE and not to keep providing the same junior curriculum as we have for decades; he noted the need to pay more attention to the problems, needs and strategies arising from adverse childhood experiences; and the importance of leadership in ensuring that everyone knows how to take developments forward as well as knowing what to take forward.

There was much stronger guidance given to the effect that we need to stop seeing S4 and S5/6 as separate entities and that pupils should have clear fluid pathways through the BGE and into a individualised but holistically designed senior phase programme. Similarly, the strength of feeling that all teachers needed to take on a fuller responsibility for health and well being (and not just nurture), rather than leaving it to Guidance and Support colleagues was evident.
He concluded with what all considered to be great advice for both schools and Local Authorities alike: Keep it simple; make it bureaucracy light; make it relevant; collaborate; be innovate; close the poverty related attainment gap; and make a difference!
I could go on for hours describing each of the detailed presentations and the debates that followed. Instead I shall continue to merely provide a few of the most memorable observations made and discussions had that I feel noteworthy for a brief blog.
Stephen Miller, President of School Leaders Scotland, highlighted the problem of negativity across the media and how we need to do more to showcase the many successes we have in every school. We may be down in the PISA league tables but what about the high level of positive destinations we are ensuring across the country? I would urge us all to think how far have we come over the last 10 years. Yes, we have a long way to go with some issues but in many respects we are so much better at providing a more relevant set of educational experiences for our youngsters.

Elizabeth Morrison, Education Scotland’s Strategic Director, led a Workshop on the Attainment Challenge at which I contributed to. One issue raised was that we should only be using Poverty Equity Funding (PEF) on those pupils receiving free school meals and that the HMIe are not impressed with schools who just provide universal support for a whole year group for example, as opposed to targeted groups of disadvantaged children. My point was that if we only used PEF for those in poverty, it would soon become clear to this group that they were being singled out for special treatment and would disengage with whatever support was put in place for fear of being stigmatised. It is up to Head Teachers to spend this PEF funding, and if they choose to provide additional support and strategies to others out-with the target group to ensure those most in need take up the support, then that should be permitted. I was pleased Liz agreed, provided we could still evidence an impact on those most in need.

Instead of giving a description of the very informative workshop on the National Qualification for Headship provided by Lesley Whelan, Director of Programmes for SCEL, I would note how thrilled I was to spend a couple of hours with Lesley and her colleague Anne Munro discussing the excellent leadership programmes provided by SCEL for all levels of education. This is particularly important to Oban High School as we have a clear vision for developing leadership at all levels and have ensured that we have teachers on the Teacher Leadership Programme; Deputes on the Into Headship Programme; and I myself am a participant of the Excellence in Headship programme. Lesley and I share the view that all staff can be very effective leaders of learning provided they are given support and guidance and the opportunity to lead and I am looking forward to working with SCEL over the coming months to achieve this aim for my staff. Of course the biggest challenge is overcoming the lack of confidence to lead developments in many and the lack of desire in a few.

Neil Croll, the Head of Widening Participation at Glasgow University led a workshop outlining how the university alters it’s entrance requirements for those who participate in their REACH programme but more importantly for those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds – mainly those from areas which fall within SIMD 4 or below. (SIMD stands for Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation for those who wish to Google it). Whilst very supportive of this programme because I am a firm believer that we need to address the issue that youngsters coming from poorer backgrounds often do not get the same life chances as the majority of our children do and they need support, I am opposed to using SIMD as the only guide and determining factor in providing such support. SIMD indicators in rural areas simply do not work. For example, in Oban those in most financial need (as indicated through claiming Free School Meals) come from SIMD 6, not SIMD 2 as accepted as a norm across Scotland. I was encouraged by Neil’s acceptance of this rural issue and his confirmation that those at Glasgow University also bear in mind other individual evidence of need when addressing reduced qualifications.

All teachers have huge concern about the constant changes within the National Qualifications. Some subjects are more problematic than others, mainly Science, where the Scientists setting the courses and assessments can’t agree with each other, leading to changes appearing in the Subject Specification papers every single year. The constant debate on whether they can or cannot teach bi-level (two stages in the same class) really has to be resolved. However, the principal issue on everyone’s thoughts centre around the removal of compulsory units at National 5 and the impact that will have on the Nat 5 exams. Basically, to assess the requirements of the course without having evidence from unit assessments will now mean adding further questions to the Nat 5 exam, increasing the number of questions and extending the timing of the exam beyond what is expected at the Higher level. Does this then mean the Higher has to become more lengthy and demanding to the extent that the Higher paper will be more lengthy than a University exam paper? This issue is yet to be resolved.

So too the issues over whether or not the Nat 4 should have an exam and around why schools are over-presenting at Nat 5, leading to thousands pupils failing the Nat 5 exams. These issues are inter-twined and equally unresolved. From the outset we need to stop equating Nat 4 with the old General and Nat 5 with the old Credit exams under Standard Grade. Nat 5s were designed to be more demanding than the Credit as we all complained that the jump between a Credit and a Higher was far too great a leap. Nat 4 on the other hand was not designed to replace General.

What has happened in reality is that Nat 4 has replaced the old Foundation level that almost all pupils passed to recognise their efforts and success in completing a course at a basic competency level. Once this has been achieved then schools have no option to do anything other than present pupils at Nat 5, knowing that the Nat 5 courses are far more demanding than most pupils who have just sat Nat 4 will find achievable. It is for this reason that most schools are letting many pupils do the Nat 5 over two years, aiming to do the units in year 1 and the exam in year 2; though still letting them sit the Nat 5 exam they expect them to fail in year 1 for experience.

The discussion held In Ronnie Summers (SQA’s Head of Qualifications Development) workshop was that the SQA / Scottish Government felt that schools were over presenting, whilst the profession think we have no option. Ronnie was keen to hear of alternatives, for example, should we have Nat 4+ exams? Just as Ronnie was prepared to listen to my ideas for improvement so too was Janet Brown whom I had a long conversation with around the difficulties of the tight timescales for change set by the Government and about how best to engage everyone. I was very impressed by Janet’s desire to engage with me in discussing how best we support children. Far too often I speak to members of educational organisations and all they wish to discuss are percentages and improvement targets – the numbers. Janet on the other hand talked about individuals’ pathways and how we could best support them. She was aware of the breadth of opportunity that we offer in OHS and keen that we push forward with using more opportunities contained within the full suite of SQA opportunities on offer.

Ken Muir also shares similar views to myself about the need to look after individuals. In his case as the CEO of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, he is interested in how we support individual teachers to ensure that individual pupils get the best out of our professionals. His workshop on the changes to the “Fitness to Teach” policy was essential for all school leaders. The changes due to come into force in 2018 following the current consultation will likely ensure that all teachers are supported by schools and the GTCS to fulfil the GTCS Suite of Standards at whatever level they are at and their are clear expectations and guidelines on how to proceed if teachers are not at the required level. Jennifer MacDonald, the SQA’s Director of Regulations and Legal, gave all those present five scenarios, case studies of concern for us to consider and judge. This was a good reminder of the issues that can confront our staff and how we should be addressing them.

Now, I could continue to go on at length as between Nine in the morning to Midnight each day I discussed a variety of issues with dozens of educationalists and I listened to many more engaging speakers I have not teased out here, for example the extremely talented and enthralling Judith Gillespie, former Deputy Chief Constable; and clearly I can’t expand further on an already too long reflection of the conference.

However I am pleased to note at the tail end of this blog that I have learned a great deal about where we are nationally with government policy and where the key organisations wish us to proceed to over the next 12 months. I also learned much from my peers about how they are taking forward issues that I feel we need support in: tracking and monitoring in the junior school (BGE); how to merge S4, S5 and S6; how to use the SEEMIS system more effectively (All councils keep their records on this electronic programme to share with Government); examples of best practice in health and well being, especially nurture programmes; how to transform Core PE into certification for all; and how to further develop our OHS leadership for all initiatives to include more specific training for PTs and more sharing of good practice with international partners. I have to thank Gillian Hamilton, CEO of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, in particular for her support.

Of course such conferences are about sharing and I was pleased to have been of assistance to my peers who sought me out to learn of our nationally recognised academic and vocational post 16 programme; our pastoral care and support initiatives; the leadership and nurture work we achieve in partnership with Outward Bound; our specialist schools of Traditional Music, Dance and Rugby; how we use Didbook to take forward the Skills agenda; how we are developing Growth Mindset and mentoring programmes; our parental engagement strategy, particularly the use of social media; and our own leadership development successes.

It’s good to share! ( and dance)

(I have included pictures of a number of people mentioned for two reasons. Firstly, I like having an image of someone in my head when I’m reading about them and I’m aware I mentioned lots of people that not everyone will be able to picture. Secondly, it’s less boring to read a blog with pictures.)

@Teamscel @sls @obanhighschool @johnswinney @GLoganEd @GTCSKen @CEOScel @FredaFallon

One day laughter, the next day tears.

My blog is designed to give a taster of what it’s like to be a Head Teacher. Most of what I write is very positive because I enjoy my job. There are aspects of the role that fill me with great pride, make me laugh and smile and generally provide a feeling of contentment that all is well. 
However, there are times when the job is stressful and there are times when instead of laughter there are tears. Today was a day for tears as I learned that Janice Alexander, who works in our office, passed away this morning after battling a terminal illness for the last 4 years. Janice has worked in our school for the last 14 years. She is a local girl, well known not just to those in the school but across the community. Along with her husband Iain, they were stalwarts in developing Oban Saints Youth football club into a very successful organisation – a club that the school has a very close partnership with. Janice kept Iain, the club and a large part of my school office running smoothly and efficiently. She made sure that both the Saints and the school got best value when it came to anything to do with our books and spending; she made sure that whenever there was an issue, that it was fixed; if there was ever a query, it was answered. Janice managed this by being good with the books but also being good with people.
Every morning on arriving at school I would make my way into the school office to be met by Janice who was in bright and early, already drinking her tea and scoffing the endless supply of cakes and biscuits along with the rest of “the girls”. This eating of cake and drinking of tea continued on a hourly basis throughout the day I often thought. And, each day she would smile (mostly), bid me good morning and then, depending on the Rangers or Hibs score would await my scorn or excuses. A bit of friendly football banter is always a good way to start the day… if we won. 
Thereafter we would discuss how the various Saints teams had got on, but particularly the team I used to coach and the team my son still plays for, the 2002s. She would regularly ask how the boys played and always took an interest in Jude in particular. After all the positives, she would then proceed to lambast every other coach who forgot to hand in their minibus keys or left the gate open before declaring what we should do to the next time… perhaps that bit of my recollection I should omit.
Throughout each day I would visit the office to see Janice about various orders and in most visits the conversation would quickly turn from the boring request about the size of a blazer or make of a device to a discussion on what was in the Oban Times, who had been saying what in the community or what she thought of a particular pupil or teacher, some good, some less so. You see, what made Janice such an appealing, lovely lady was her desire to be sociable, to chat, to have a laugh – often at my expense. If there was anyone you would enjoy working with beside, it would be Janice. And commendably she continued this same good humour (with a few ups and downs) throughout the last few years despite her illness. 
Of course it was not only me who appreciated her good nature. The girls in the office who knew her far, far better than I loved her. They worked with her every minute of the day and they socialised with her on numerous nights out and weekends away. The special bond that all these girls have with each other was pleasing to see each day and heartbreaking to witness today. Many staff from across the school also appreciated Janice for both her personal qualities and professional efficiency and many staff spent more than a few hours getting to know her well as they hung about the office for whatever reason, mainly to steal the girls cakes I think.
I was at a meeting in Kilmory when I got the call with the devastating news that Janice had passed away; still devastating even although I have been appraised of her wellbeing each week for some time now. I instructed the office girls to leave the school to allow them to be with each other, somewhere else but somewhere together so they could share their grief with the breaking of their bond. I then arranged for the school to close slightly earlier and drove swiftly back so I could hold a whole staff meeting. I felt it important to share the news with everyone myself. It is a role that all Head Teachers would undertake I imagine. I was fortunate that I had at my side Kristeen Horne, not just Janice’s manager but her friend. Together we stood at the front of the assembly hall to break the news, though many had heard already.
The whisperings in the audience and the spreading of the news ensured that before I even began to speak, the tears were flowing. I shared the sad news and I shared a few brief recollections and observations about Janice. I went on to note our thoughts were with Iain, Janice’s husband and her sons Stuart and Robert. And, I concluded with a dismissal of those gathered and a parting comment that I hoped they would recall warm and happy thoughts about our friend as they left. 
I had opened my remarks saying that this would be a short meeting. I did so because then was not the time for long eulogies, that time will come. It was a time to break the news and to allow the immediacy of emotion to take its toll. Some were shocked and some were stunned by the news. Some of us, already knowing the extent of Janice’s illness were still reeling regardless. 
Everyone was sad.
This is not a eulogy, it’s a blog. My witterings about issues and events all linked to the theme of what it’s like to be a Head Teacher. So with that in mind, let me tell you with sincere honesty that being a Head Teacher can be a wonderful job, full of joy and satisfaction. Today, having to look into the eyes of my colleagues, eyes already red with tears, and confirm that we have lost a wonderful friend and colleague, made this one of the saddest days I have endured. 
Given the timing and of Janice’s interest in my Bugle playing, I’ll finish with this observation:
Last Post has sounded this evening and we must endure our loss. Reveille will usher in a new day tomorrow and the opportunity to celebrate and remember our friend.

The Good, the Sad and the Ugly – Repeat

The Good

The mood in the school has picked up considerably since my blog last Tuesday. The following day, Wednesday, I spent most of the morning and into the afternoon coaching the under 16s football team then watched them turn on the style to despatch Lenzie Academy out of the Scottish Cup with a two goals to one victory. This is the team that got to the semi final a couple of years ago and we are hoping to get to the final this year. Lenzie gave us a good game though and were threatening throughout the game. I went to see them in the changing room after the game to say how well they played and congratulated their keeper in particular. He was outstanding, saving three clear fantastic on target shots.

Rather than be drawn into a minute by minute account of the game I better turn my attention to the highlight of the day on Thursday: the first of our “Live N Learn” courses. Live N Learn? A couple of Head Teacher colleagues of mine, Tom Rae at Craigmount and Peter Reid at Broxburn have been promoting the benefits of a company called Live N Learn to me for the last couple of years. Such was the passion they showed for the work of this firm that I went down to their head office in Lennoxtown a few months ago to see what all the fuss was about. After a couple of hours being given the full tour and explanation to the educational opportunities on offer, I signed us up to a six month programme of support around the concept of growth mindsets, linked to in particular to the national qualifications and the stress of exams.

Often, schools buy in such educational packages from a variety of firms across the country. They often get them in for a day sometime early in the session and target younger audiences. This is fairly sensible as it allows the pupils to benefit at an earlier stage and hopefully they will retain the knowledge learned into their senior years. However, I am not convinced that as many pupils benefit as we would like them to from these one day events and thought we should try to build on their knowledge and consolidate prior learning just as we seek to do in any of our daily lessons. So, I asked for a programme that would see us deliver Growth Mindset training to all S4 – S6 pupils in November, to be consolidated in our own lessons during a ten week block of lessons provided by the company; to then be built on through another two day training provision in February, again followed up by a further 10 lessons delivered in school with Live N Learn tailored materials. This will ensure that between now and the exams, every week our pupils will be exposed to a continual reinforcement of the key Growth Mindset messages, through the Prelims and right up until the exam period.

During the training on Thursdays and Friday, Jen (the excellent trainer provided) took our youngsters through a series of presentations and workshops designed to help our youngsters evaluate whether they had a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset”. The first excercise was designed to help our youngsters self evaluate how they cope with criticism; challenges; success; and difficulties. Do they take things personally or do they accept criticism and move on?; Do they avoid or confront challenge?; Do they feel threatened by others success or try to learn from others?; Do they say “I can’t do it.” Or, do they say “I can’t do this yet!”

The feedback provided showed our pupils be quite honest in their assessment of themselves and we had far too high a number admitting to having fixed mindsets. However this honesty is quite satisfying in a way because it allows us to have clear targets and a clear direction. One can only make changes if one accepts the need to change I feel and I’m pleased our pupils acknowledged this so we can work on developing Growth Mindsets over the coming months.

Jen also led a session with staff on the Thursday after school and with parents on Thursday evening. All the staff were present given the importance of the programme. However, sadly we only had five parents who came along. The hardy few learned a lot about what we were hoping to achieve and how they themselves could help their children. Small numbers of parents attending school information sessions is not unusual in our school, indeed most schools across the country. However, we need to try and encourage more parents through our doors to take part in the opportunities we offer. I am hopeful that the Parental Engagement Group we just set up and which has about 20 parents attending it, will help with ideas to get parents involved more – where and when they can.
The Sad

As well as the second day of training for our seniors, we held our annual Remembrance Service on Friday. This is one of the most important days in the school calendar given the importance we place on remembering all those who gave their lives for us through the many conflicts our country has faced since the Great War. We have been holding Clan assemblies all week so that all our classes in the clans can take part in remembrance events with pupils leading the presentations on what it’s all about and why it’s important to remember. This culminates with the formal service in the assembly hall to a packed audience of senior pupils and staff. The service was led by one of our local ministers, the Reverend James Beaton and Socials teacher Kirsteen Binnie (who organises the whole event) with the Head Boy and Girl laying the wreath and members of the Senior and Junior Leadership Teams along with pupils who attended our annual Battlefields Experience all involved in readings. I played the Last Post and Reveille with Amber McWilliam –who only started to learn to play the trumpet a couple of months ago, and the bugle a couple of weeks ago. I’m very proud of her! Members of the cadet services attend too and this year the Air Cadets attended. The whole event is very moving, especially when the pupils share their own thoughts. I think this excerpt from Polly’s speech is particularly poignant and important for all of us to remember: especially those critical of our remembrance services, the symbolism of Poppies and what some see as the glorification of war through perpetual reminders:

“… I think many of us over the years have misunderstood or mis-interpreted what Remembrance is all about. We don’t remember to glorify our country, to glorify our ‘victory’. Because there was no victory, because there are no winners in war, we come together and we go to these cemeteries and pay our respects and lay poppy wreaths and remember, so that we learn. So that we look back at what we did and understand, that war is awful, for everyone no matter where you come from. Those Germans were the same as our soldiers, sent out to fight to defend their country, same as the French soldiers, the same as the Belgians, the same as every single soldier that stood on the battlefields. We aren’t remembering for our own pride, we are remembering so that we never do this again, we are remembering to learn from our mistakes….”

And this is what real education is all about, as exemplified by one of our youngsters. Adults have a lot to learn.

Human nature is very complex but clearly has two sides, good and bad, good and evil even. The desire by our school community to emotionally invest so heavily in our remembrance services throughout the week are a credit to our school, our pupils, our staff and our community partners like our Chaplaincy team, H2O and Cadets. They show the good in our community. After each of the five services were held, “You could hear a pin drop.” was a common phrase described throughout the week. It didn’t matter which clan or which age of pupil who took part, they all sat with interest and respect. Indeed, almost all our clan assemblies have high levels of interest of mature behaviour, interest and respect. Indeed, as I walk around the school, or better still tour guests around the school they often comment on how calm our school is.  Clearly it is a bit noisy at lunchtimes and the end of the day when a thousand youngsters exit the building all at once, excited to be given their free time.

The Ugly

Human nature has a split personality. We can go from showing great empathy, positivity, generosity and kindness in one hand, to revelling in the misfortunes of others and believeing that everyone is bad and the world is in chaos on the other. Bad news sells is a cliche with a great degree of truth. With this in mind it was disheartening to hear, as I did from a parent on Friday evening of the rumours perpetuated in the community by a few who would choose to do our pupils, school and community a disservice. Some hear of a fight, or hear a few children cursing in the street, see a few children drop rubbish in the street etc. and they seem to believe that all children are to be demonised and perpetuate the myth that the school is in chaos and all our children are bad, whether because their parents brought them up poorly or because we don’t punish the “bad yins” enough.
All large high schools, ours included because of the sheer numbers of young people we have, all enclosed in a single building; all at an age where teenage hormones make them more agitated and confrontational at times; all learning the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in a working environment; and all learning how to interact appropriately with both the opposite sex and with those in authority will have situations that pupils, their parents and the school (sometimes the police, social work and health) have to deal with. Yes, we very occasionally have a fight; yes we often have bullying incidents, usually caused when friendship groupings break down; yes we have pupils who swear, litter and refuse to do things they are told to do. However, these are relatively small in number given the large school we are in and when considering the hundreds of thousands of interactions that take place between our community members every year. And, these are all incidents our very professional and talented staff and community partners resolve as we educate our youngsters socially and emotionally.
If anyone ever has any doubts or concerns about how well behaved our pupils are within our school as exemplified so admirably this week, I shall be glad to give anyone the opportunity to walk around the school with either myself or one of my Deputes; and should you take this opportunity then you will see just how wonderfully talented our pupils really are; how respectful they are; how well behaved they are; and what a credit they are to us, their parents and our community.
“Don’t believe all you read in the paper” is another common cliche. Don’t believe all you hear in the street is a cliche I may have to establish. Come in and see us.

So, back to the Good…

On Friday I met with David Lafferty of D&K Lafferty. I had been telling David of our new initiative where we wanted to provide a hot breakfast and fruit to any youngster who wants to take up the offer every morning. I explained to David of the difficulties some of our children face at home, looking after family members, having to work long hours to help support their families and how this can impact on their ability to do homework or feed themselves in the morning. If we can provide a hot breakfast and fruit in the morning we are setting them up for the rest of the day, rather than letting them start the day on an empty stomach and perhaps feeling downhearted. Additionally, we will also provide staff to help them do last minute homework whilst they are with us and so relieve another possible tension before the day already begins. I must acknowledge the generosity shown by David in providing financial assistance to what could prove to be a very expensive but very worthwhile endeavour. Here’s a wee link to our promotional video.


Finally, one final example our good community. On Sunday our pupils and staff represented the school at the town’s Remembrance Service. Our pupil leadership team, musicians and staff were in attendance to pay their respects and our Head Boy, Ruairidh and Head Girl, Mila laid another wreath at the war memorial.

I do not attend the Oban service with my pupils and staff. Every year since I was 12 years old, no matter where I have lived, I have returned to my home town of Musselburgh on Remembrance Sunday to visit my family and to pay my respects at my local parish church, St’ Michaels of Inveresk, where I also play Last Post and Reveille. As the years have gone on. I have been asked to play at other venues close by together with a few friends, all of us former, proud members of the Boys Brigade. We now play at Northesk, Inveresk and Musselburgh. I have fulfilled this duty now for 37 years. As each year that passes, regardless of the venue I play at, east coast or west,  I am reminded of the humility and respect we can show for others.

Now that is Good.