End of an era

It with is great sadness that I begin my most recent blog with the devastating news that John Porter has passed away. John has worked in our Science Faculty for over 25 years and consequently has been an inspiration to thousands of our children. Only a few days ago, John observed that he thought he would see out his days in the old school. Prophetic.

John’s success, indeed the success of all the pupils who benefited from his skills as a teacher, can be attributed to not only his sound knowledge of his subject and decades of practice getting pupils ready for exams but to his unique personality. John was a calm teacher, with occasional displeasure rarely being audible. My enduring recollection of his classroom management lies in my observations of him using mere facial expressions to control and direct his classes. Misbehaviour was corrected with a frown and a downward motion of his head. Suspected foul play in the offing; a squint and pursed lips redressed the situation. Adulation and pride when his pupils demonstrated what they had learned that day was met with a raised chin and wry smile. “There you go Mr. Bain, seems they were listening after all.”

As well as being popular with our children, John also gained the respect and friendship of all his colleagues: both in and out of school. His calm approach and wry humour could be found not only in the class but frequently in staff gatherings, large ones in the hall; smaller ones at the school gates, where he liked to take in the fresh air at breaks and lunchtimes. Whether having a chat around the back of seven in the pouring rain where we would meet walking our dogs, or in the corridors of Science, John always conveyed to me what it was like to be the perfect gentleman. I found him to be exceptionally pleasant, he made me smile and he was a fantastic teacher. I will miss him greatly, as will his colleagues and pupils. Our thoughts are with his wife Barbara and children Michael and Sasha.

There are a few staff in Oban High School who have taught alongside John for decades and they too face a different type of melancholy in addition to the heartache of losing a dear colleague. It may seem strange to some but when one works in the same place for so long (and in Duncan Sinclair’s case the same classroom for 24 years) an emotional bond to your environment becomes established. The School may be considered ‘just’ to be a place to work; but school communities are our extended family to a large extent and the school building surrounding us our home (away from home). Moving house after many years can be an emotional strain to many and so it is when moving our school, with all the memories, traditions and familiarity that gives our subconscious, pride and comfort.

As an Historian, you will not be surprised to learn that I have ensured that we will be taking much of that heritage with us to our new school. The original School stone badge from the 1890 build has already been placed in the new entranceway; the war memorial, School Captain’s and Dux Boards will be placed in the Foyer next week; the Clan Shield will take centre place in our new trophy cabinet; and clan shields will take centre stage as one walks through the front door. The bell tower will be rebuilt during the external works. And, I have even looked at re-establishing the flag pole on the hill next to the School. I would appreciate anyone telling me of a local flag maker to make us a new school flag.

Much of my time spent since the last blog as been working with colleagues from the Council’s Special Project Team getting the new school ready. Indeed local boy and Project Manager David Logan, along with Shirley Johnstone have been camped out in my office for the last fortnight. Together we have spent most of our time working with Morrison’s to ensure all is going to plan and that our new school will be ready for us moving in at the end of this week. Of course, in the old school much of our last few weeks have also been spent packing.

The two extra closure days were most welcome as without them we would not have managed to pack away all the equipment and materials necessary to keep teaching the courses. A wee reminder to all that whilst we were busy packing, our pupils should have been busy studying on all the work we left for them on Show My Homework: true for the two days unpacking on the 16th and 17 April too. Also a wee reminder that we a running Easter Revision in Argyll College for the next two weeks, so please check FB for details.

As well as packing and planning for the new school I also squeezed in ‘a few’ interviews and appointed ten new staff:

Art and Design: Sheila Stewart

English: Beth Brooks Taylor and Tara Carmichael

History and Modern Studies: Catriona Morrison and Alison MacFarlane

PE: Calum Vardy

RMPS: David Duncan and Hanna Pyne

Science: Hanna Stevenson

Technology: Matt Walker

Our local community has helped share the message that Oban High School is a great school in an attractive and vibrant area. Helping share the social media news and adverts we place on Facebook, website, Twitter, You Tube and this Blog clearly works. Keep sharing folks!

I mentioned Oban High School being a great School. Where is the evidence? Well, you will know from our news and my blog that we have some international renown for our post 16 Education provision and that I have been asked to present to Head Teachers from across the country on issues such as Leadership, Curriculum, Working with Parents and Pastoral Care, so we must be doing well in these areas. However, added to that list is our exam success. Now some years are up and some are down and that is the natural order of statistics. No organisation can continually go up and as they do rise, so they must fall. I am pleased to note that last year was most certainly an “up year”.

Why mention last year’s results now, I hear you ask. Well! Every August, right across the country, the SQA course results are published, pupils get certificates through the door and schools sit and beaver away working out how well the school has done. The Press also like to compare schools’ pass rates and generate a league table. Fortunately the Scottish Government and Education Scotland have recognised that SQA course passes are only one way to measure a school’s success and they have a fairly new measurement framework called Insight. Insight measures all the qualifications provided by many different qualifications bodies, including SQA course awards; SQA Unit awards; National Progression Awards; Saltire Awards, amongst many others. All these awards are given an equity benchmark called the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). Almost all educational qualifications we use, from Doctorates and Masters to National 1s or SQA unit passes have a numerical value attributed to them. So, no matter the range of choice on offer in a school, (around 100 choices in OHS), a School gets credit for all their pupil successes.

Schools are also provided with what is referred to as a Virtual Comparator School as a more accurate way to measure how well a school is doing compared with other schools. The Insight programme basically finds 10 other pupils with similar backgrounds and similar characteristics to our own pupils, for every pupil on our roll. Subsequently if we had 200 pupils in S4, Insight would find 2000 similar pupils and measure if our pupils did more or less well with this Virtual School group. They also focus on what a pupil achieves when they leave school. So, no mater whether a pupil does 6 or 8 subjects in S4; or whether they did their courses over one or two years, it is how well did they do when they left school that is the true measure of success?

This is a great system of recognition especially for schools who see that providing a breadth of opportunity necessary to progress all career pathways is more important than just providing a traditional 20 subjects that everyone has to do to clock up Higher passes, percentages and tariff points. It has one flaw. The overall results are not entirely collated in August when everyone wants to know how a school got on. Indeed, the definitive set of school results are not published until February the following year, 6 months later. Hence why I mention results now, following my analysis of last year’s definitive results.

In short, our Positive Destination figures (the key benchmark of how well a School has provided for our pupils) remains above all comparative indicators, local and national; and our Literacy and Numeracy figures are above the Virtual Comparator at Levels 4 and 5.

We still have some work to do gaining more As in our Highers and obviously as with most schools we have departments who are performing below national averages… alongside departments surpassing the national averages.

Our total Insight Tariff points are also affected negatively because of our Pathways programme. Most of our S6 choose this vocational option and gain valuable work experience rather than taking say, another Higher or Advanced Higher which gains lots of Insight Tariff points. With 8o pupils dropping a subject to do more vocational experiences, it is clear that the narrow deficit could easily be overcome by the School dropping Pathways and forcing pupils back into an SQA course to clock up more points. That will never happen!

For those of you who are still interested in the old traditional measurement system I can report that by the time our pupils left school last Summer the following percentage pass rates were attained:

32% achieved 10 or more SCQF Level 3 Awards (Virtual Comparator, 22%)

32% achieved 10 or more SCQF Level 4 Awards (Virtual Comparator, 21%)

18% achieved 10 or more SCQF Level 5 Awards (Virtual Comparator, 10%)

1% achieved 10 or more SCQF Level 6 Awards (Virtual Comparator, 0%)

86% achieved 6 or more SCQF Level 3 Awards (Virtual Comparator, 87%)

83% achieved 6 or more SCQF Level 4 Awards (Virtual Comparator, 84%)

59% achieved 6 or more SCQF Level 5 Awards (Virtual Comparator, 57%)

28% achieved 6 or more SCQF Level 6 Awards (Virtual Comparator, 26%)

* The figures have been rounded.

* SCQF Levels 3, 4 and 5 includes SQA National 3, 4 and 5 passes and SCQF Level 6 includes SQA Highers.

* I chose to report at +10 as it is the maximum recorded and + 6 because that is the maximum we offered in S4. However from next year, we will be presenting 9 subjects as we are now certificating PE, RMPS and Scottish Studies in addition to English, Maths and the 4 unique pupil choices as we do presently.

All in all some very good results with areas of improvement as standard. Well done to all the pupils, staff and family members who helped ensure our successes.

I hope you all have a great two weeks holiday. See you in the new school.


What’s going on?

“What’s happening this week?”, How’s the new school getting on?”, “Where’s your blog?” Are three common questions I’ve had for the last couple of weeks. So what’s the answer, what has the Heidie been up to and how is the school getting along?

The new school is coming along well. The upper floors are almost complete and are being cleaned and sealed off ready for us moving in. We get the keys next Friday! The ground floor remains the main work area and where they store all the new furniture and equipment ready for dispersal across the school. I recommend going to the High School’s Facebook page or You Tube Channel and you can look at the recent video I posted which gives a better idea than I can in a paragraph. The You Tube channel also contains all the videos we have been posting recently about what our new SQA courses look like.

Year after year, teachers spend time writing pages worth of information to help pupils (and parents) learn about the courses on offer. Sadly, an investigation into the effectiveness of this form of communication proved the hundreds of hours spent were largely a waste of time and few actually read the big booklet. I think this is mainly to do with society’s move into the digital age and that we have become accustomed to short paragraphs, small videos and bullet point news delivered through packed social media platforms like FB, Twitter and Instagram. There is an irony here that the blog you are reading is the exact opposite of that.

As well as having lots of meetings about the new school covering issues such as furniture and fittings; the positioning of tills, paintings and art work; information boards; discussions around operational issues such as one way systems; what will happen on the first day; press enquiries; and pupil toilets, I also was given health and safety training to allow me to take staff around the school myself. This proved very useful as I toured the school again with the Head Janitor, Lynne, Head Cleaner, Caroline, and Canteen Manager, Donna, to start the operational planning necessary for running the school.

The issue of pupil toilets has come up a few times this week. I am astonished at how much attention this has received on social media and the repeated question about whether or not we have single sex toilets or unisex toilets in the new school. Personally, I would be quite content that all our toilets were unisex as clearly society is moving in this direction including many other schools, without issue. However, we are a large school and are able to offer both unisex toilets for those who do not mind and single sex toilets for those who do. We have unisex and single sex toilets in our current school, so this is not new to our pupils.

As well as being at a lot of meetings regarding the new school, I have also been chairing a number of meetings with my management team, particularly over course choices, prelims and forthcoming exams and exam study; and the government’s poverty equity funding.

The course choice process is very complex and takes time. We are currently in the first stage of this process. We issued a course choice and column structure form and are now discussing career choices and what qualifications and experiences pupils need to,pursue their chosen career. For the first time, we have invited parents into all the one to one meetings, many of which also benefit from having careers advisors from SDS present. I am pleased to note that these are going well and about 50% of our parents have been able to attend. Many others can’t because of work reasons and of course many of our pupils know exactly what they want to choose and parents are quite happy to leave it to them. We have about 800 pupils going through course choices, so we have a way to go yet.

The second stage of the process is to ensure that from the courses chosen, we have enough teachers to run the popular courses and to re-interview pupils for courses that will not run because of lack of interest. Every year, pupil choices change slightly. One year we may need more History teachers; another more Technical teachers; another more college courses. Consequently, we offer as many courses as we can and run the ones the majority of pupils wish to do. We offer just under 100 courses, some are only available to S6 granted. We do not have the staff to run them all at one time. I believe the average school offers closer to 30 odd choices and in a few high attaining schools they only offer around 20 courses. The specialisation in a few subjects leads to high academic pass rates and a security of staffing. However on the other hand pupils do not have the same level of choice as we offer and they are forced to take a limited number of subjects they do not want to do, in far greater numbers than we face. There is no right or wrong system, it depends on the desires of that community.

Regardless of whether a school offers 20 or 100 courses, no school can promise every pupil an exact match of subjects they “want” to do in a single year. They should, and we do, promise to provide what every pupil “needs” to get into a career of their choosing. One aspect to the changing nature of course options I have noticed over the last couple of years is commonality of subject patterns. A decade ago, a common choice of five courses may have been English, Maths, History, Modern Studies and Music. Now, we are just a likely to find the same numbers interested in English, Maths, Art, Drama and Hairdressing or Computing, Games Design and Graphic Communication etc. The introduction of so many new subjects has totally upset our historical sense of what is “the norm”. This is a good thing because now our pupils are choosing subjects they hope will help in particular careers and that they enjoy, rather than being stuck in a mindset or following historical mantra like: “You need three Sciences.”; “You MUST take a language.”; “You need a broad range of subjects.”; PE, Art and Drama don’t count as Highers at University.”. None of these are entirely true and pupils should seek the views of their Guidance teacher, from the careers advisors and use sites like My World of Work to help dispel the myths peddled by parents from my generation and find out how careers have changed in the 21st Century. Incidentally, universities do not insist on Biology, Chemistry and Physics for any one course and when they mention 3 Sciences, Maths counts as one. PE, Art and Drama are equally valued as Highers, though be careful some universities only let you have one such subject in your first five. Some courses in some universities want you to have a language, some insist on Nat 5 Maths, even for English based courses and some demand Higher English whilst others don’t. Read the Prospectuses and entry requirements, they are all different!

I also mentioned Prelims and exams. The Prelims have gone well and the PTs are predicting an increased pass rate compared to last year for many of our courses. Given last years results proved to be our most successful over the last 3-4 years, with higher levels of numeracy and literacy than the national averages and a positive destination percentage standing at 97%, higher than the national, regional and schools comparator averages, then I am hopeful we will report another successful set of results in August.

I should mention that the annual publication of results in August only includes some of our results. Because we now offer so many different subjects, using different awarding bodies and have college and university partners who deliver courses on our behalf, all the results do not get published in August. The only accurate results are to be found at the end of February when the definitive set of results are published by the Government’s Insight team. The “National Dashboard” provides all the school’s final results for all the pupils who left school that year and provides comparison with national averages and a virtual comparator school. This is published on Parentzone, though I shall send it to parents myself before the break. Our school is continuing to do well I am pleased to report. Of course not all pupils have done well in the Prelims and not all subjects have posted the level of progress we wish. PTs have been tasked with engaging with pupils and their parents over work ethics and attendance (particularly S6) and have been to asked to work with their staff to develop additional support measures to help those in danger of either failing a course or missing out on a higher grade if that is what they need for university or employment opportunities.

One of these measures is the provision of Easter Revision classes. These will be held in Argyll College because we will be busy moving schools over the holiday. I am extremely grateful to Denise and Fraser for this offer. These classes have not been offered just because we have exceptional closure days because of the move. We have offered these for the last few years and last year we saw 260 pupils benefit by attending extra classes. I am disappointed that more pupils do not attend. The extra tuition available just before the exams is really invaluable and could make all the difference to a pass or higher grade, if only they could seek the support they need. Of course some will be unable to attend because they are on a family holiday and hopefully they will still squeeze in some revision whilst away. I have had a few complaints from parents that we are not running this subject or that. Our teachers are on holiday and have their own family commitments. Those attending are volunteering to give up their holidays to help their pupils if they can. I very much appreciate the extra time they are providing.

Every year at this time I take the opportunity to go and visit as many of the P7s I can, in their own schools. I take a Guidance teacher with me. The purpose of these visits is to let them meet their new Head Teacher; to hear about how important a role the Guidance teacher plays; and to give them an idea of what the high school is all about and answer all their many questions, thus putting their fears to rest hopefully. We also return and do a similar presentation to parents and pupils at the end of the school day. In the last couple of weeks I have met many lovely pupils from Easdale; Kilninver; Luing; Park; Rockfield; St’ Columba’s; Taynuilt; Lochnell; Dunbeg and Dalmally. With 19 Partner Primary schools, we still have a few to go to.

I am sure that many of you saw the video I posted of the Oban: A University Town’s Open Day. It was a great success and around 300 people visited the Corran Halls to listen to what the higher education aspirations are for the town. Primary pupils got to hear about future careers; and Ballet West and our own School of Traditional Music pupils provided the entertainment. I have since attended the follow up meeting of the OAUT Steering Group and can confirm that the consultation regarding the new logo will be to our pupils liking following over 500 of them taking part in the process. The discussions for the forthcoming year will now all focus on what courses to make available across all the participating institutions, OHS included, and over the provision of facilities for the new students we hope to attract.

Another visit I took out of school was to Atlantis Leisure with a small group of pupils interested in the protecting the environment. Stirred on by the recent visit we had to the school by Sunnyside Primary, campaigning to ban plastic straws our pupils have began a campaign entitled #naestrawoban. They are currently encouraging local businesses to recognise the harmful environmental issues around plastic and I have to say they met a very positive and warm welcome from Michael and Euan. The team are going to award glass trophies of congratulation to all those local businesses who support their campaign.

Of course straws are only one item of plastic. The next step is to target plastic bottles. All pupils will be encouraged to stop buying an endless amount of plastic bottles of water and to consider having one water bottle they top up from the new water fountains in school. This seems to have jumped to the top of the agenda nationally following the media reports of trace plastics in our bodies, possibly from the recent phenomena of drinking much more water from bottles. It should be noted there is no definitive proof of this and an international study is on-going. However our pupils naturally show concern when such stories feature in the national media. Mrs Wilson has kindly agreed to take on Eco Schools as her whole school management responsibility and will now help our youngsters make our school community more eco friendly.

Another group that involves the “pupil voice” I chair has been looking at how we seek pupil views both around the learning experience in the classroom and across whole school issues. For many years I have have put great store into Pupil Forums. Whether we wish to change the curriculum, design the new school or that someone has an idea that would affect many of our pupils, we run smaller focus groups, usually three or four groups of about 30 in each. Whatever the idea muted we explain the initial proposal to the group, they ask questions, then we get an informed response which we use to develop the idea. We rarely use a tick box survey these days as they do not offer the ability to tease out exactly what the pupils think through discussion.

The volunteer staff on this pupil voice group have already met with PTs to evaluate how the departments seek to gather the views of pupils in lessons, at the end of units and at the end of the year. The group has also carried out research into how other schools across the country use pupil feedback to inform the classroom teacher’s practice or whole school plans. A couple of schools in particular have been targeted for further investigation and two members of staff will visit these schools for a day to see what we could learn from their operations.

OHS already has a good reputation for effective use of pupils views, likely because of the way in which we gather the information from the pupil forums rather than votes and because of the numerous times we engage in the seeking of views. Of course, many pupils (and staff) will still say their views are not heard. All leaders are faced with the issue that one has to make a choice between competing ideas and when one group’s ideas are not taken forward the common cry is “I wasn’t listened to”.

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

I am due to give a presentation on how we consult and engage with pupils to a team of Norwegian Head Teachers in May. I am very lucky that I shall be able to use the national research of my enthusiastic staff to add to what we do here in Oban.

Staffing remains a concern to me at this time. I have previously mentioned how few applicants rural school receive for the jobs we advertise, despite the financial and accommodation enhancement packages we offer. There are just so few teachers available and willing to go to rural areas, especially with the increased number of jobs appearing in the central belt following the Government’s poverty equity funding flowing into schools in the cities. It is a good initiative and this is an observation not a criticism. Of course even the PEF funding can’t knit teachers and nationally, even in the cities, it is difficult to get Technical, Maths, Science and Home Economics teachers.

I have good news to report. Last week I was able to interview and appoint a new PE teacher. My thanks to Gillian Carney, HT of Park Primary for sitting on the panel. As our secondary PE staff also deliver PE in the local primaries it’s important I get advice from a more qualified HT than I in this respect. The close working between the High School and many of our Primary partners ensures that our youngsters really benefit from a much better transition between the sectors. Our staff, working with Primary staff to deliver PE is a great example how younger pupils get used to seeing more teachers, experience discreet specialist teachers and it allows for a more seamless curricular transition. The Head Teacher Advisory Group led by our Head of Education, Anne Paterson, are considering this in other subjects like Languages and Music as well. A move welcomed by many of my colleagues.

I would also like to say congratulations to Aileen Jackson, who has become the Principal Teacher for Raising Attainment. This new role will involve working with all school managers to gather data about all our pupils across the school and she will work with Guidance and Support and/or subject PTs to work on strategies to increase the success of our pupils. A lot of her time will be spent using the data to have discussions with subject PTs on successful learning and teaching strategies that could be employed for particular youngsters. The post also calls for the establishment of small group work where some pupils or groups of pupils find difficulty in engaging or achieving in particular areas. Finally, as well as under-performance arising because of learning and teaching needs, much of it is down to social and emotional barriers both in school and at home and Aileen will work with Guidance staff and to support families where we can. This is an exciting new role and I am sure Aileen will make a real success of it. Aileen will still teach some English classes. I should now say well done to Kerri Stewart who has been promoted to the post of Principal Teacher of English. Kerri is a very experienced teacher whom I hold in high regard and will do very well indeed. So, with three new positions filled where do we stand with the other vacancies?

Before I begin, I have to say a huge thank you to Anne Paterson and Anne-Margaret Houston for their support and speed in dealing with our advert requests. Normally, we would not be able to get adverts out this early – most schools don’t advertise until after Easter, even May, when they know if they will get Probationers or not. We along with some others are advertising as early as nationally permitted to try and get the best candidates. As already mentioned it is difficult to get applicants even after offering relocation expenses, staff accommodation, a brilliant new school and a beautiful vibrant community to live and work. The closing date for most of our jobs was on Friday. We still only received the following number of applicants.

Art, 5

Business (re-advert), no applicants.

English, 3

French, 4

History and Modern Studies, 9

Maths, 1

Music, 1

RME, 8

Science (re-advert), 2

Technology (re-advert), 1

These vacancies have arisen because of three members of staff moving onto promoted posts; three retirements; one maternity cover; two relocating nearer to their homes and one career change. The Technology post is currently being filled by a temporary member of staff whom I rate very highly, so that is not a concern. I also have an additional Technology probationer lined up for August to support that area.

Although we do not have any applicants for Business Studies, I have already lined up a probationer for August to ensure these classes can still run with a qualified teacher. The two probationers I mentioned are local graduates who have shown an interest in becoming teachers and thanks to the introduction of the new secondary teacher training course run by Argyll College we are able to support local talent in pursuing their new careers and thus ensure we have qualified teachers, especially for our more difficult to fill posts. I am absolutely positive that we will get some very good teachers from these interviews and I’ll let you know how we get on in my next Blog.

I am sure you will be aware that I could mention other work I have been involved in over the last couple of weeks. However, I’m not sure you wish to learn all about how I taught Volksgemeinschaft to the Advanced Higher History class or about my conversations about percentage attendance rates and the success of our new attendance strategy at the end of a long blog anyway.

Maybe next time. Remember, my blog is merely to give an idea of what a Heidie does in a typical high School whilst mentioning what’s going on nationally along the way.

The title of this blog is “What’s going on?”. If you really want to know what is going on in OHS and not just from Sunday morning casual observations in my Blog, then sign up to Facebook, Twitter and our You Tube Channel for almost daily updates and/or look at the school website. Of course for parents, we also send letters by email, short text reminders and make calls home where required. And, most importantly of all we have full time Guidance teachers and willing staff who will take your calls (when they are not teaching) and answer your questions personally.

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