“Blown away”

A reminder that my Blog is not a diary; it merely reflects my thoughts about what I have been doing and thinking in a particular week. Sometimes it has more about Oban, about Tiree; about my work with the Council, BOCSH, SCEL, SLS etc; and sometimes about my views on Scottish Educational issues. Advanced warning: my witterings this week are varied and a tad longer.

Last week’s blog included a great evaluative summary from the Good School’s Guide, from their evaluation of our school the previous week:

“If you have a vision of secondary education as a linear, largely shared academic experience with national exams strategically placed along the way, think again. Oban High school probably more than any other secondary school we have visited has fully embraced the idea of the Curriculum of Excellence and shaping an education to each individual child.”

“We struggle to describe this as a school: more a complete educational experience. Inspiring leadership has meant they tackle a huge and complex catchment area with commitment and dedication.”

It is worth repeating if only to complement the observations made by the HMI following their Thematic Inspection of OHS last Monday. You may recall that as part of the Scottish Government’s drive towards school improvement and the empowerment of Head Teachers and their school communities, I noted that the HMI were carrying out a number of Thematic inspections across the country. Oban High School was chosen to be evaluated on “Leadership of the Curriculum”.

Leadership is an interesting concept because everyone thinks of leadership in different ways. What is leadership? Is it an individual leading others along a route chosen by the leader? Is it a single person deciding who else is allowed to lead and encouraging leadership amongst others? Is it a committee or team of people leading the rest of the organisation?

How we viewed leadership was the first challenge posed by the HMI. My answer: Leadership is about everyone recognising that they have a leadership role to play. It should be assumed as a natural responsibility and not one foisted upon or gifted by someone higher. I believe that pupils, teachers, support staff, parents and community partners all have a leadership role to play if we are to ensure we continually improve the breadth and depth of care and education we provide to our community. If everyone shares our vision and takes ownership of what they can achieve, either as an individual and/or as part of a team then the school will naturally move forward with pace and consistency. It will thrive because of the collective will and collective talents of all and not just rely on one person (the Head Teacher), or a few (the Senior Leadership Team).

I was pleased by the HMI’s assessment of our leadership of learning being “accurately outlined and well defined”. Particularly pleasing was the recognition that there was “evidence of pupil leadership and how they were leading their own learning”. As with all positive observations there is always a caveat… on this occasion, the observation that there was variable leadership ability across teachers. Entirely natural and to be addressed.

Some people, Head Teachers included, love praise and hate criticism, even if it is positive criticism. It is my contention that one is unlikely to receive much praise if they cannot welcome observations on the aspects of life that are less than perfect. The reason I am content for other organisations like the HMIe, Good School’s Guide; Investors in People etc. to come into our school and have free reign to watch our lessons; evaluate our exam results; or interview our pupils, staff, parents and partners (as has been the case twice this month) is that a fresh eye on what we are doing is crucial to being able to improve. Sometimes someone will give advice that is out of context and so of less value but on most occasions we use the independent comments and suggestions for improvement to continue our journey of improvement.

And, building on prior advice is perhaps why the HMI continued with more praise for our Learning, Teaching and Assessment Policy; the quality of our support staff; the wealth of partnerships we have established; the very positive relationships we have with parents; the success of our assessment and moderation activities; the level of empowerment felt by Principal Teachers and how they use this leadership; and the strong levels of reflection shown by teachers.

The HMI thought our youngsters were great and that they had no difficulty in describing our curricular success, they spoke highly of our Pathways Programme, which provides vocational opportunities and experiences to seniors to supplement their academic qualifications; and particularly pleasing was our youngsters’ insistence that Oban High School equally values both the academic and vocational. The large number of Baccalaureates we provide are highly valued to some going to university; but not any less valuable than the Customer Services awards that will get some a job straight from school.

This example, amongst others, helps explain a final parting observation by the HMI when it was noted that there are “not many schools that can achieve this level of inclusion”.

Awaiting, then experiencing, any HMIe visit creates a certain tension across a school community and so at the end of the visit I met with pupils, then staff, then sent messages to parents and partners saying thank you and well done. They all knew the school, both vision and practice, and they outlined where we were and how we could improve. All took responsibility for leading the school… and exemplified my definition admirably. Pheww!

A special mention has to go to my Senior Depute Head in Oban, Kevin Champion. Kevin was responsible for putting together all the preparatory reports and evidence and for setting up all the interviews with pupils, staff, parents and partners. Given the importance of the visit and the need for an attention to detail, I am very pleased (and relieved) his work was excellent. A fantastic effort. Thanks Kevin.

Of course I mentioned that with praise should naturally come critique. So, what’s next to add to our School and Department Development Plans?

Well first up is that I’ll need to re-write the curriculum rationale. When I first heard this statement my heart sank as I thought the criticism was of our curriculum itself; and given I’ve been running about Scotland and Norway promoting it, this could have been very embarrassing. Thankfully the Curriculum was great, it’s just we under-sell ourselves by not describing it very well.

More seriously we have work to do in developing a deeper understanding of the Broad General Education amongst staff (and I would argue with many parents). The BGE contains a breadth of education that pupils are entitled to experience, covering eight curricular areas. A key purpose is to ensure that between S1 and S3 pupils get a baseline education covering knowledge and experiences they will need to make their way in life after school. It was designed that way to help overcome the problem of schools narrowing the curriculum so that pupils were only taught a limited number of subjects so they could pass their exams in that narrow range of subjects.

The BGE has a heavy lean towards ensuring we teach literacy, numeracy and health and well-being for all and indeed these three areas are the responsibility of all teachers to ensure these basic skills are taught, reinforced and consolidated across all subjects. Additionally, we continue to develop inter-disciplinary courses; ensure we share with pupils the learning outcomes and success criteria and skills to be learned in lessons – all to ensure that pupils see the relevance of doing subjects and topics within subjects and how they fit with the real world.

The media has wrongly lambasted a Curriculum for Excellence (especially the BGE) for many years. Lazy reporting had mistaken the professions frustrations around the new qualifications as being one and the same. They are not. I know many who are still fed up with the qualifications changing year after year. I am not aware of many, though they do exist, who can argue against a Curriculum that delivers a wealth of knowledge and skills to youngsters varied enough to expand their knowledge of the themselves, the workplace, the world they live in.

If you believe the purpose of school is to prepare young people for life and work, then the BGE is great (though can still be improved); and if you believe school is merely to provide youngsters with 8 O Grades, then you may be one of those arguing with the Government for a revision of the curriculum again. Head Teachers across the land uttered many expletives when this came out. Everyone is entitled to their view though.

The consultation document can be found here:


Last week I wrote about those who harken back to their own schools days, usually around the 80s. Back then we had the ability to tackle up to 8 O Grades across S3 and S4; 5 subjects (Highers or O Grades) in S5 and another 5 in S6 (though most only did 3 and had lots of “free periods”. Sorry, most pupils had left school by S6 with few courses at an appropriate level of breadth of interest available to them.

Two main problems: firstly, only about 30% could manage to do 8, either because of ability but also because they simply had no interest in studying for 8 subjects, most of which they didn’t like or were forced into. Standard Grade replaced the O Grades and allowed for three levels of certification across the 8 subjects (Foundation, General and Credit – the latter being equivalent to the O Grade) but still kids hated doing 8 and would try and sabotage their way out of classes constantly: wasting the time of teachers and causing a major headache for Guidance and Deputes – what to do with 70% of pupils who could not or would not stay in all 8 subjects?

Another key complaint was that there was too big of an academic jump between O Grades / Credits and the Higher. When the new National Qualifications were designed, the National 5 qualifications were deliberately designed to be harder and to close the gap between the Higher. They were also to be delivered in one year (S4). Clearly pupils having harder courses to sit in less time required a solution. The solution for the majority of schools was to reduce the subjects on offer from 8 to 6, thereby allowing more time and more chance of passing all 6. This also had the added benefit of not forcing pupils into many more subjects they didn’t want to do.

For those who complained that pupils would not get as many qualifications as previous generations four points were made and repeated often:

1. Most pupils never sat 8 in the first place;

2. Pupils can still get as many qualifications as before, they just need to spread them evenly over S4-S6;

3. A cautionary note about the stress caused by trying to do 8 harder subjects in less time would have on the health of youngsters;

4. Those traditionally sitting 8 are almost certain to go onto do 5 Highers to get into university, and no university asks for more than 5 Highers, so what’s the point of having to do 8 Nationals?

At Oban High School (following consultation with pupils, parents and staff), we moved to 6 subjects like most others. Our pass rates at the O Grade/Credit/National 5 remain on par, sometimes better, sometimes less so, with the averages attained before the change (though it should be remembered it is not a level playing field because the Nat 5s were designed to close the gap and are more difficult many subjects argue).

With regard to Higher results: they have improved significantly between both periods. This could be because we have employed better teachers; have better ways of teaching now; have better resources etc. Or, it could be that the new Nationals really do prepare youngsters better for the Highers and the system of spreading them evenly over three years rather than front loading in S4 works very well.

In terms of overall success rates: by the time pupils leave school, a pupil in Oban High is twice as likely to get 8 or more Highers and 10 times more likely to get 10 or more Highers compared with our Virtual Comparator.

One further adaptation we have put in place this year allows pupils to attain up to 9 subjects in S4 and we have done so without reducing the time allocated to the basic 6. How? Pupils will now be able to collect a National 4 or 5 in PE and RMPS. These are compulsory subjects that all pupils in Scotland have to do. Our staff have re-worked the courses to allow our youngsters to achieve qualifications as well as experiences. We have also built in Scottish Studies units across many subjects and will add a short term course in June to ensure the full award can be gained.

Why? Why not? If we can, we will.

Oban High School is not alone in making these changes and there are more than a few who are leading the way with ensuring that our youngsters get the best possible qualifications – Tiree High School will be included in these improvements.

The Inspection had kept me away Tiree for some time, though I was still able to lead developments from afar courtesy of VC; and having a number of excellent staff on the island. Oban staff have been working with our island colleagues on course development, assessment and moderation as well as professional learning through shared practice. We had OHS staff teaching Tiree classes and Tiree staff teaching Oban kids; whilst others focused on strategic developments. The impact on staff from both schools is noticeable.

Wednesday saw me attend the Joint Services Committee in the morning and Chairing the Education Budget Steering Group in the afternoon but the best part of the day was without question attending the annual Dance Show in the evening. I say every year that it gets better and better… this year was a cracker, even the teachers demonstrated a lot of talent (a lot of the recent appointments have all been experienced dancers). Our partnership with the internationally renowned Ballet West; the continuing growth and diversity of our excellent Sports Coaching programme and the dedication of both staff and pupils, led by the brilliant Denise Gemmell ensured a night to remember. Thanks too to our Primary pupils who came along and entertained the audiences with spectacular routines.

staff dance

Thanks to Kevin McGlynn for this picture.

I was back on Tiree on Thursday and Friday (in fact I am here until Monday). In that time I have renewed and changed staff contracts, almost concluded the recruitment process for a new Janitor; worked on plans to improve our school property; began changes to next year’s curriculum to allow more courses to be offered to pupils; teased out some of the views given in the recent pupil focus groups with some pupils; liaised with external partners to come in to provide more courses; and worked with Oban staff over the joint In-service provision next week.

Saturday evening has obviously seen me write this Blog. Tomorrow I’m composing a letter to parents with an update on where we are with the school review and asking for their views on a possible new curriculum; maybe even a change to the school badge, name and uniform – all suggested by pupils.

However such decisions are reserved for the leadership of all, not for one. I look forward to seeing how it all comes together.

I don’t want to kid you all on and suggest I spent the whole weekend working. Saturday morning saw me tour the island with Archie and Maisie. We had a great time walking along Balevullin Beach (it was a bit windy), then Sandaig Beach (even windier), then on the recommendation of the only other locals brave enough to be out in the gale (Chrystal and Daisy) we were off to the Hynish Centre and Skerryvore Lighthouse Museum (exceptionally interesting for an historian like myself).


I thoroughly recommend Tiree, no matter the weather. Its stunning scenery and friendly locals will ensure you have great time.

The HMI opened the week with a statement about being “blown away” with Oban High School’s curriculum and inclusion” and I’ve closed with being blown away with Tiree’s scenery and hospitality. A well rounded ending to this week’s blog I feel.


Author: Peter Bain

I have been the Head Teacher of Oban High School since 2008. Most recently, I also took on the role as the Head Teacher of both Oban High School and Tiree High School (which includes a Primary School and Early Learning Centre) as Executive Head Teacher. I previously worked as a DHT in Eyemouth High School in the Scottish Borders; as a Principal Teacher in Balwearie High School, Kirkcaldy and Kirkland High School, Methil; and as a class teacher in Trinity Academy in Edinburgh and Viewforth High School in Kirkcaldy. Although born in sunny Leith near the hallowed ground of Easter Road, I am really from Musselburgh where I spent most of the first 30 years of my life. I went to Edinburgh University in 1990 and attained an MA (Hons) and an MSc before going to Strathclyde to pick up my PGCE (with Distinction) in 1997. I returned to Edinburgh University to complete my Scottish Qualification for Headship and Post Graduate Diploma in Educational Leadership and Management in 2008. The purpose of my blog is to give an insight into my working life, although a wee bit of my personal life and views will inevitably arise. Although I am writing about my experiences at work and these are shared by the school's social media functions, this is not an Oban High School blog and the views expressed are all my own.

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