It may not be snowing just now but the other effects of Winter are very much in evidence as the storms batter our shores and the wee flu bugs batter our immune systems. The impact on schools and our communities can be significant. The numbers of children absent from school can be measured clearly by our attendance statistics, as can the number of teachers bed-bound – both affecting how our youngsters move forward with their lessons.
“Flu season” is of course not unique, it occurs in every school to lesser or more degree each year across the land. This is what happens when you put so many people in a room / school together. No matter the precautions, germs spread and one by one, family members, then friends, then school mates, then teachers succumb to the coughing and spluttering. Indeed, this blog has been delayed by a week as I myself was suffering from ‘Man Flu’ last week.
How do schools cope? Well, because this happens every year we have plans in place to lessen the impact of pupil and staff absence. In the case of pupils being absent, staff use Google Classroom more and more to share lessons so that even if a pupil is confined to home they can, should they choose to, follow the basics of each lesson. They should be able to see the learning intentions of a lesson, perhaps a summary sheet of what was achieved, copies of the pages of a book used or web link to a video shown. Not all teachers utilise Google Classroom as fully as others but we have been continually delivering IT training to staff throughout the year to help. We delivered ‘Google-training’ to all Oban staff at the recent in-service day; and we hosted more advanced training, delivered by our excellent Education IT Team led by Gary Clark to staff from all schools across Argyll and Bute who attended OHS this week. Staff from both Oban and Tiree were part of those learning about the wealth of possibilities for the future.
In terms of planning for staff absence, we endeavour to bring in as many Supply teachers as we can to cover lessons left without their normal teacher. This often gives parents cause for concern because they remember what supply often looked like “back in the day”, when quite often Supply teachers were left to babysit classes. These days, our PTs have all the courses well planned and so when a member of staff goes off, the PT starts an absent teacher’s lesson bearing in mind the lesson planned. They then leave the Supply or Cover teacher work to take the pupils learning forward. All our teachers are fully qualified, and whilst they may be covering a lesson in a subject they are unfamiliar with, they still know how to support youngsters with tasks left for them – and if any difficulty, they can nip next door and ask the PT subject specialist.
Additionally, we bear in mind the subject specialism of the Supply/Cover teacher and try as far as possible to link them to a similar discipline. For example, a Physics teacher is more likely to cover a Maths lesson; a History teacher is more likely to cover a Modern Studies lesson.
There are unfortunately times when we do not have enough Supply teachers on tap or enough internal Cover teachers to cover all the lessons during Flu season. And of course, it’s not just illness that keeps staff out of school. The week before last saw us with teachers in short supply because the Supply teachers themselves were ill; we had staff already out doing compulsory training; two others suffered bereavement in their families: and this led us to having to merge classes. This also causes some concern amongst parents. However, all schools plan for this too as it will almost certainly happen during at least one week in a year.
Classes that are merged still have lesson plans to progress with, still have teachers to help pupils and still have subject specialists on hand if required. These merged classes often are put together in a games hall or gym. In our case we can use the Atrium. Our Atrium is split in two sections and has teaching screens in both areas. When we merge classes to this extent, the classes are supervised by Depute Heads. The merged classes in an Atrium are also restricted to Junior classes. As Flu season is close to the exams we re-jig the staffing to ensure our Senior classes get access to subject specialist as a priority.
Timetabling issues were not solely restricted to dealing with staff absence this week. As well as this period being referred to as Flu Season; it is also referred to as the Course Options term. It is this time of year that sees our Guidance and teaching staff sitting down with pupils and parents discussing how they have been getting on with their courses and what subjects and experiences they should engage with next year as they pursue their career choices. These discussions begin with class teachers following the Prelim results being shared, then the pupils meet with their Guidance teacher. To help pupils and parents have a greater understanding what is on offer in the school, in college, at university and in the work place, we also hold an open evening where school departments; Argyll College and Skills Development Scotland (SDS) provide information and offer support and guidance.
We are also very lucky to benefit from SDS committing to send a careers advisor to every S2 Guidance / pupil interview – and with all our Guidance careers interviews, all parents are welcome to attend and learn about what is on offer. We strongly encourage this as careers, qualifications and university entrance requirements are significantly different to when parents attended school.
The information gleaned from school reports, Prelims, Guidance interviews and SDS careers discussions help pupils to get a better idea of what they may choose. When this is a little clearer we then ask pupils what they are likely to choose when the final course option form goes live. This exercise allows us to create column structures that are likely to meet the choices of most pupils. Parents often ask why we restrict pupil’s choices in columns. The answer is simple; and equally true for all schools. If we have 450 pupils choosing 5/6 subjects from a choice of up to 88 different courses the possible individual combinations run into thousands. No school could match every combination, which is why our columns represent “best fit” in any given year. What is important to note is that across the three years of the Senior Phase, pupils should be able to access their full choice of subjects. For example, if they can’t do Modern Studies in S5 because of a column clash; they could pick that subject up in S6.
Our column structure is almost complete for Oban and the “real” options forms will go out in the next couple of weeks. I am also hoping that we will be able to add further to the choice of courses on offer as we continue to try and firm up the ability for us to offer more Foundation Apprenticeships.
I should warn everyone, again, that although we offer at least 88 course across S4-6, we will not run them all. We offer a wealth of choice each year because different pupils wish to undertake different subjects. One year many pupils may wish to undertake Hospitality and less in Physics; the following year, we may see a spike in Physics and only one pupil wanting to do Chemistry. Every cohort is different. We always issue a warning on our course option sheets (as every school does) that subjects are offered “subject to uptake and staff availability”.
The new partnership with Tiree and the new Skype for Business IT facilities we are installing will allow us to ensure that we are able to offer more subjects in both schools. If one or two pupils opt to take an Advanced Higher, and normally this would not be enough to run the course; then it could be that we would combine the small numbers in both schools and run the course with more viable numbers; using Skype to deliver one way or the other.
Schools and colleges across the country have been using VC to great effect over the last few years. We currently use a VC facility called Vscene just now to teach Gaelic. It works very well. It will work even better I believe as the new technology just delivered to Oban and Tiree by the Education IT team is the best available at the current time.
The only problem with such fantastic equipment is sometimes those who operate it, as I found out during three Skype test sessions recently. We have been using staff meetings and parent meetings to test the new equipment before we use it in June with classes. Obviously this is a sensible approach as evidenced by the recent trials. Firstly, we had a very good shared in-service day between Tiree and Oban using Skype, though in one session we learned a lot about the importance of staff positioning in the class. The next trial was between the OHS Parent Council and myself and DHT, Jemma Playfair in Tiree. It showed the system worked and that such meetings could successfully take place but it also taught us about problems of linking additional hardware to the laptops. Once that issue was addressed and we had all the equipment and settings fine-tuned and tested we tried to use the record function during a parent information evening in Tiree and I ended up recording an empty room! Problem now solved – and no harm done.
Why am I sharing all these errors with you? Because it is an important life lesson for everyone, adult and child alike. We need to be innovative, be brave, not shirk from change, development and improvement just because we might make mistakes or even fail completely. Society and life thrives on innovation and requires trial and error before we can be as successful. My examples show there is nothing wrong with such an approach. Trial, error, then learning in test environments ensures we can push the boundaries of the learning experience we can provide, thus ensuring every pupil has a greater chance to achieve their dreams.
Other highlights of the last fortnight include my visit to the P7 pupils of St’ Columba’s and Rockfield Primary schools. Each year as part of the P7-S1 Transition stage I try to visit as many P7s as I can across our 19 Partner Primary schools. I thoroughly enjoy these visits as I am always met by keen youngsters, eager to hear all about what it is like in Oban High School; and of course this year sees me deliver the description of life in the new OHS for the first time.
This is now the 11th year of such meetings and as such I am well aware of three common concerns faced by most P7s every year. Firstly, they worry about getting lost in the big school. Remember, although we have schools with primaries of over 300, we also have wee schools where perhaps there is only one or two coming from a particular primary. No wonder they are daunted by the change, even although we have endeavoured to get them along to the High School throughout the year and they’ve caught a glimpse of life in OHS, whether through taking part in a P7 project, a sporting event or an event like Maths Fest.
My answer to those worried by getting lost is that they shouldn’t worry. There are about 150 adults around the school they can approach; and our seniors are very friendly too. They are all given a senior Prefect buddy, a map and extra time to get around, so they’ll all be fine.
The second fear is that the work will be too hard. My reply focuses on getting them to recall the difference between moving between P6 and P7. I tell them that we work closely with their Primary teacher, who tell us what they have been learning and that just as the work got a little harder between P6 and P7, so it is between P7 and S1. All we do is build on the work done by their Primary teacher and make it a little harder to achieve natural progression. The same is true between S1 and S2.
Finally, the third worry is about bullying. My reply is in line with the guidance given by all teachers. If a pupil is being bullied, then they or a friend need to tell someone. As soon as we know someone is being bullied we can step in to help repair the relationships that are causing the bullying to take place. If we don’t know about it, we can’t act.
As well as working away in OHS on timetabling, course options, negotiating staff contracts, holding interviews (I have just secured a new Home Economics teacher for Oban and Janitor for Tiree), meeting contractors about the new school (completion date this Wednesday), discussing finances as we get close to the end of the financial year and holding whole staff meetings or one-to-one management meetings, I was on my travels to Tiree.
Last week I was in Tiree with our Head Janitor (Lynne) to work on harmonising the role of the janitorial roles between both schools and to drop off new tools and technical equipment necessary to make sure building work, as well as lessons take place with the right tools for the jobs. Also in attendance was Jemma Playfair who has been working with Aine on listening to the views of pupils about things important to them. As a result of their views we have worked with the catering service to improve choice in the canteen and the pupils report they have seen a change to their liking. These discussions will continue as we hope to improve choice yet further.
The pupils were equally pleased to learn that their desire to have a new uniform is taking shape. Jemma is currently working with them on choosing a new uniform, new badge and perhaps a change to the school name. Pupils and staff clearly indicated they want a separate Tiree Primary School and Tiree High School identification. The school badge art work is on about version 6 or 7 and is being mocked up with Digital Kangaroo in Oban.
Of course with all changes affecting a school community, we need to seek the views of all parties and the uniform, badge and name consultation will shift to parents soon. This is similar in nature to the change to the school day consultation, though we started with parents, then staff. The consultation has now shifted to the catering service and transport sector.
This week saw me in Tiree with Councillors Roddy McCuish and Jim Lynch. Both were keen to learn about the progress we were making with taking forward the recommendations in the School Review and in meeting pupils and staff. They also took the opportunity to seek the view of members of the Tiree Community over the provision of flights: flights we used ourselves to get to and from Tiree, ably assisted by one of our pupils Cameron Allan who has been doing long-term work experience at Oban Airport. A job he loves. He has lots of great people to work with there, especially Dixie, who looks after me and my staff as we come and go. It is much appreciated… as is the pilot, Wolfgang keeping us alive in the shoogly plane.
Much of the School Review developments so far have focused on developing the partnership between staff in OHS and THS. These partnerships will ensure that the curriculum in both schools move forward at the same time and in line with local and national good practice. It will also ensure that that staff in each school have a bigger team to work with. This is great for both schools as every school needs another to partner and moderate lessons, courses and assessments with. It is mutually beneficial.
The High School partnerships began first because as the head of two high schools, this was easy to achieve. However, I also lead an ELC and Primary school. To support their development, I thought it best to seek the support and guidance from an experienced Primary Head Teacher. Minnie MacLellan, with many successful years of experience in leading two primary schools and with a Gaelic and island background herself seemed to be an obvious choice. Minnie has now kindly been working on my behalf with the PT of Primary/ELC, Julie MacLennan and her team. Together, they are working on an improvement plan that will ensure that our primary colleagues will also be able to work in partnership with colleagues, sharing good practice and delivering a curriculum that ensures our youngsters continue to learn all they need to ensure continuity of learning from the ELC, through the Primary, into the High School and beyond.
Minnie also kindly led a parental information evening on the subject of building a curriculum. The session focused on discussing with parents what Tiree parents thought were important contributory skills, values and career destinations necessary to consider for teachers planning what to teach and why we are, or why we should be delivering additional knowledge and skills. As much as some in the audience may have been more aware than others about the history and nature of their community, there were many others who told me they valued the evening as being enlightening. For my part, as the new Head Teacher and not familiar with the history and environment, I found the session to be immensely interesting and useful.
Kevin Champion and I acted as the assistants and added information that helped shaped the next steps to the Primary developments as evidently, Primary pupils become High School pupils and we need to work together. Kevin was in Tiree to work with his Senior DHT partner, sharing experiences and self-evaluation systems crucial to evidencing the success or otherwise of all we do and contributing to the next steps planning stage of our improvement plan. As the Head of Guidance in Oban, he also had the opportunity to work with the new PT Guidance Laura Kilpatrick on Guidance issues but also discussing how she could add to the OHS course options through teaching Music Technology, something we can’t currently offer without her expertise.
At the same time we had Kevin over in Tiree, we had Jack Cooney, teacher of Computing in OHS working with his new colleagues… and covering classes caused by the aforementioned Flu.
My visit to Tiree extended into the weekend again as I found myself privileged to be part of the school musical production of Oliver, in which I played the part of Mr Bumble. Whilst my acting talents were a tad rusty, my costume, made by the very talented Claire Brady, ensured that I at least looked the part.
Fortunately, I was only on stage briefly, which gave me the chance to run around the front to watch all my pupils getting engrossed in their roles and thoroughly enjoying themselves. There is nothing more satisfying to any teacher than to see their kids smiling away, enjoying themselves, and of course learning so many skills as they do so. The evening show and a Saturday matinee were enthusiastically well attended and I am aware from many discussions after the show and on the ferry home that it will be remembered for some time to come.
These shows only come off because of the enjoyment of the kids; the enthusiasm of the audience; and the hard work of the adults involved, teachers and parents/community helpers alike. Well done to everyone; especially Julie, Becky, Ishbel and Laura.
Everybody enjoyed themselves – a great way to end the week!!