Curriculum is – or should be – at the heart of school education

Professor Mark Priestly is an excellent academic and a very interesting and engaging presenter – well that’s my view following my participation in day one of a three day course on the Curriculum, part of the Excellence in Headship Programme run by the Scottish College of Educational Leadership, at Stirling University.  

Many see the curriculum as being all about the traditional subjects we teach, however it is far more complex. It is about the breadth of subjects; the skills required; the wealth of wider opportunities; it is about the relationships between the academic subjects and vocational subjects; partnerships across education and across the community, local and national. Understanding the holistic nature of why, what, when and how we teach EVERYTHING and how it is all intertwined is crucial to understanding how we can improve the curriculum in its truest, widest sense.

There is a lot of contemporary criticism that the environment and the institutional and systematic way we teach in schools hasn’t changed since the Victorian era. Indeed, I’ve been to schools where they still use a brass hand bell to announce the start of the day, lunch and dismissal time just like they did in the factories during the 1800s. It is a system that ensures our pupils turn up to school, on time, with their equipment, in uniform and ready to engage with their peers in a productive a respectful way. This was a necessary pre-cursor to ensuring that there was order and productivity in schools and mirrored within society, especially in the workplace.

Little has changed in this respect. These are still the expectations in any 21st Century workplace and these are still the expectations in Oban High School. Similarly, both the Victorians and 21st Century education still places a high degree of importance on exams. Why? Society uses exams to measure the degree of ones intellect, abilities and talents based on examinations of knowledge and skills, themselves one and the same. We do exams in school to measure the acquisition of skills and the retention of knowledge; both of which are necessary skills in every job in life after school. Thereafter, employers continue to teach their staff knowledge and skills to ensure the employees remain trained to carry on their roles as the environment and needs of the employer change over time.

Some may argue that this is quite depressing. However, I would argue that whilst the key principle that we need to prepare youngsters for the world of work hasn’t changed, what has changed is the focus on ensuring that education is for everyone, not just the elite, the top 30% even. This acceptance of equity by most in the profession ensures that schools across Scotland have largely embraced the Curriculum for Excellence (much maligned unfairly in the press) to ensure that all our pupils needs and aspirations are at the forefront of our minds when writing and developing an individual school curriculum. The acceptance that all youngsters have different desires, different talents and different abilities means that teaching 14 core, traditional subjects up to Higher, occasionally beyond, is just not good enough and we need to offer more subjects relevant to 21st century employers demands and youngsters interests.

I am proud to note that Oban High School offered 44 subjects in the senior phase and 24 subjects in S4 last session. Choice of opportunity is one cornerstone of our curriculum. Choice of opportunity allows pupils to get experience in qualifications and experiences closer to those necessary and / or desirable for an employer in order that our youngsters can take their first steps into life after school. In running a traditional curriculum, pupils could pick up whatever number of Nationals or Highers they need to make the basic criteria but how much better is it that criteria also met through choices of subjects and exam success that reflects more accurately their knowledge and skills in a specific employer related area.

That is why, as well as English, Maths, History, Biology etc. we also offer qualifications like Sound Production; Childcare; Hairdressing; Engineering; Automotive Skills; Sports Coaching; Health and Social Care; Construction; Hospitality; Digital Media; Cosmetology; Design and Manufacture; Maritime Skills… the list goes on.

It is also why we place a huge importance on developing leadership skills across our pupils though the development of our pupil leadership teams and Sports Coaching classes, as well as encouraging leadership opportunities in every class. Similarly, we use drama classes and productions as well as the insistence for each My Time class to present at assemblies as a way of ensuring pupils are given presentation and confidence building opportunities. The three Rs are crucial but so too is the ability to get past an interview panel.

Ultimately we are trying to ensure our youngsters are ready for the jobs of the future, many of which we can only guess at. Will we need Urban Agriculturalists; drone pilots; Avatar Designers; Smart Dust Programmers; Personality Services personnel; Nano Medics; Octogenarian Service Providers; Extinction Revivalists; Robotic Earthworm Drivers… the list is endless and ultimately unknown. However what we do know for certain is that the current subject specialism needs to be evaluated and some of them redesigned to meet future employment needs.

It is for this reason that the international business community and organisations such as the British Council are championing six core skills to help prepare young people for life and work in a globalised economy. These core skills are: Digital Literacy; Critical Thinking and Problem Solving; Creativity and Imagination; Student Leadership; Collaboration and Communication and Citizenship. All of which we teach to some degree already in Oban High School because we share the desire to prepare our children for the future; indeed it was this vision and current provision that led to my participation in the Education-Employer conference at Buckingham Palace during the October holiday.

I should note that we are only able to offer this wealth of opportunity because of our partnerships with other educational establishments; for example, Argyll College; Open University; Ballet West; Glasgow University; Herriot Watt; the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – all of whom either run courses for us or provide valued support, encouragement and guidance to our young people.

Another cornerstone of the curriculum is the pastoral care we provide pupils; another the existing school staff and support; and the final corner the support we get from the Education Department, Education Scotland, the SQA etc. However, these reflections are for another day.

This wee piece is about reflecting on the curriculum today. As part our discussions at Stirling we were asked to contemplate alternative ways to look at the curriculum given the changing nature of the world and what we know from what works and does not work in today’s schools. Should we bounce pupils from one class to another every 50 minutes or not?; Should we not start at half seven and finish at half 5 (with no homework)?; Should we abolish all exams?; Should we get rid of composite skill subjects like Geography and merge with all the Sciences and just teach Science as single subject?; Should we not be getting employers into school and let them teach employer specific subjects directly?; Should we not have more schools that do not create an artificial barrier in education at age 11/12?

There were lots of questions and debates along these lines and debate is healthy because it leads to continual improvement… as long as the change and improvement is measured and achievable. We are in the process of consulting about changing our curriculum just now and I am sure my discussions and lessons learned will be added to that consultation. However, for now, I am pleased to note that the percentage of our pupils who go onto a positive destination (work, university, college) remains very high and I am confident that we are providing a breadth of opportunity that pupils are enjoying and seeing relevance in, far more than they did a decade ago.

Mind you, the idea of moving to a three day week is appealing….


Wow! Thanks

I’d like to start my fourth blog with a big thank you! Around 800 people have read my blog and not just from the local community whom I assumed would be interested in what the Heidie and the high school were up to. I’ve received thanks and acknowledgements from the US, Australia and Greece so far. It seems folk far and wide like to hear what their old school and family members are up to. Mind you, when you consider that Oban, indeed Scotland, historically are the pioneers of the world, then it makes sense we have so many friends and family abroad.
This international interest probably also stems from many contacts we have made across the years from our foreign travels. I recently mentioned the Laurinburg Exchange and the Malawi Partnership but we also receive international renown from our involvement in the New York Tartan Day parade and from our exchange with G. D. Goenka school in India. We have also travelled as far afield as Costa Rica to support local community developments as well as our traditional educational excursions to the battlefields of France and Belgium. Then of course we have had regular trips to France with the Languages Department and the Geography department have taken us to the Netherlands and Switzerland. Regular ski trips to Italy although looking at France now. Most recently, we had a trip to Rome in the Summer and we’re planning trips to Valencia and Croatia just now. Oh, and, we travel all the way to England. I would really like to return to Barcelona again on another Music trip so I can play my trumpet in the orchestra, whilst basking in some sunshine. It’s been a bit wet in Oban for a while.

So, what’s been happening since my last post? I’ve spent time visiting classes – keep an eye on the next Learning Live video which should be out over the weekend. Also, I’ve spent time in discussions with staff over setting up the forthcoming interviews… for example, we are about to interview for a permanent Principal Teacher of Support for which I am pleased to say that we have many quality applicants. Gone are the days when we just asked them a series of standard questions. Now we plan lesson observations and activities (ok, tests) as well. With our senior positions, we also involve pupils in the process. The more we get to know about potential recruits and their experience and skills, the better chance of us employing the best staff… and I have to say this method of recruitment has ensured we have some excellent staff.

We still need teachers in English, Science, Art and Support, as well as office staff and classroom assistants. If anyone knows of anyone who may be interested then ask them to contact me at the school. Perhaps this promotional video would help to convince them.

As well as working on developments for my own school, I contribute to the work of the local authority too… they do pay my wages after all. One of the more enjoyable and useful aspects of this role is getting together with the Head Teacher’s of our local partner primary schools (we have 19 partner primary schools – more than any other school in the country) and I attended a meeting after school yesterday to discuss a number of issues that affect us all. Unsurprisingly, the council budget cuts (mentioned in the press last week) were discussed and the Head of Education, Anne Paterson was keen to listen to our views and ideas around this issue. However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom as we also discussed positive educational developments. For example, we all confirmed that our collective use of an IT programme called Didbook was working well and that we were all set to continue this into a second year. The Scottish Government, as well as businesses across the country, have been heavily promoting the idea that we ensure that all pupils are aware of the multitude of skills we teach them within all the traditional subjects. For example, whilst teaching one lesson in History, I will also be teaching IT skills; debating skills; presentation and public speaking skills etc. Obviously there’s more, like numeracy and literacy. The point is that we need to be clear with pupils that we are not just teaching them a subject like History just for the sake of it, or just to provide a vehicle to get a Higher. We are teaching them the subject and it’s component skills to ensure we set them up for life after school in university (essay writing skills for example) or into work (report writing, financial awareness, inter-personal skills for example). Didbook also allows us to perform another function in ensuring that every youngster has a Pupil Profile, the pre-curser to their CV. Anyway, it’s all going well and the pupils seem to like it and see value in it.
One of the best things about my job is seeing pupils develop and thrive as they progress through school and then, even better, seeing how well they have done in life after school. Sometimes I meet pupils in the street, often in Tesco (anyone noticed how long it takes just to buy a couple of items in Tesco because you spend longer bumping into people than you do doing the shopping?) or in the wealth of good cafes we have. I love to hear how they are getting on, whether they are telling me how happy they are to have got a new house, job, partner etc. Sometimes a few tell me of their outstanding achievements… sometimes I read about it on Facebook or receive emails and letters to the school. This week, a couple of pupils stood out for me and I thought I’d give them an extra mention. Bob MacIntyre won his first pro tournament. Superb! I’ve been following his amateur success closely on Facebook over the last few years and it’s great he’s got his first pro win so quickly.

I was also pleased to hear that the wonderful Rhona Smith, currently studying her Masters at Edinburgh University, won the Most Enterprising Green Graduate prize. Rhona was one of my first newly created Clan Leaders and an outstanding pupil.
Of course there are many, many superb pupils who have gone on to great success; some I hear about because they write to me or drop in, or because I still chat to their parents etc. However, what would be really good is if anyone hears about our former pupils doing well, that they drop me a wee note. Every time I hear of such news I mention it at the whole staff meeting each Monday morning and we publish the good news on our Facebook page, which now has nearly 4000 likes and has reached up to 40,000 with a couple of our video posts.
However, to be honest, just hearing my kids have done well in life just makes me smile. Simple things in life and all that.

Wet and Wild

It’s Tuesday, the 25th October, the second day back into the new term and what a day – wet and wild! Welcoming the pupils into the school I was reminded of the perennial problem of teenagers not bringing jackets to school (or just as bad, bringing their jackets IN their bags). They seem to lack any concern about the cold and the rain. We breed hardy souls in Argyll. Or maybe I’m just getting old.

First up for the day was a debrief by Iain Fulton on our Malawi partnership with Mazozo Community Day Secondary School in Mzimba. This started as a small Malawi Partnership programme between the school in Mazozo and Iain’s My Time class where they shared experiences and letters between pen pals. Now the British Council have kindly stepped in to support a larger partnership programme and we hope to have their staff and pupils here next year.

After that meeting it was full steam ahead with my Advanced Higher History class as they got back into discussing The Weimar Republic’s economy between 1924 and 1929. I’m glad to be back teaching this level as it allows me to refresh my level of academic knowledge in a subject I used to tutor at Edinburgh University many, many years ago. 
It was also a valuable opportunity for me to get back to using the Show My Homework Programme. We have just recently re-purchased this because parents (and pupils) thought it was such a valuable tool to keep everyone up to date with what needs done and when – with helpful wee reminders through one’s phone.
After that it was off to practise the bugle with Matthew Houston, who kindly volunteered to once again play at this year’s school Armistice service, which this year will be on Friday the 10th. I have been teaching the bugle to many pupils over the years to make sure that we, along with a piper, can carry out our remembrance duties by playing Last Post, Reveille and a lament at the appropriate times in the service. I also just met with David Robertson, from the Air Cadets, who confirmed that once again they, along with Sea and Army cadets, will be in attendance. Our Remembrance service for all those who gave their lives for us remains a principal date in the school calendar and I am pleased by the support and interest our  community show in it. Pupils that have attended our annual Battlefields Experience to Belgium and France also lead the service along with staff from the excellent local charity H2O and our pupil leadership team.

After that, it was off to an assembly to listen to an excellent, well presented assembly by pupils from the Laurinburg Exchange programme, who were telling the gathered audience all about their experiences when our American guests were here in June and about their trip to Washington and onto Laurinburg earlier this month.

After a wee cup of tea whilst doing my break time supervision in the canteen, it was into a senior leadership team meeting where we discussed the ongoing work with our parental engagement group, looking at how to involve more parents in the life of the school. We also debated how to take forward the consultation process we are about to launch over reviewing our senior curriculum. We are looking to merge S4-6 into one cohort to allow more classes to be taught at a single level. This has been done in many schools already and thankfully there are lots of excellent practice out there. I’m particularly impressed with the work of Pauline Walker in Royal High, Edinburgh. However, as other local authorities have already looked at our current curricular model as an example of good practice there’s no rush – but we always need to look for further improvements. 
How to cope with our current staffing shortages… which is our biggest challenge just now… took much of our time. Despite offering relocation packages and establishing our very own staff accommodation facility, we still find it difficult to recruit in certain subjects. We continue to offer enhancements and continue with our media campaign (check out our videos on our You Tube channel and FB) to ensure that potential staff realise how wonderful Oban and indeed the whole of Argyll is. However, the harsh reality is that rural areas are struggling to get teachers to move out of the central belt; and even in the central belt they struggle to get teachers in subjects like Maths, Technical and Home Economics. If anybody knows anybody suitable, send them my way.
All is not lost though as we did start a Technical teacher this week and have a new Science teacher coming around Christmas, and we have Support and Maths interviews next week. Fingers crossed!
Lunchtime! Eh?, no lunch. Need to teach extra History for pupils who were out on excursions and need to catch up. Most of our study support is after school in almost every department. I prefer lunchtimes though.
The afternoon was just a blur of wee catch ups with pupils and staff so I won’t bore you further. I think my blogs may be a bit like my speeches. Where’s the hook?

Hope you got another wee feel for what a Heidie does and what’s happening in our school.

First day back after the holiday – exciting start.

We had a good start to the day when I addressed a packed whole staff meeting at 8.45 this morning. I’m positive all, ok most, of the staff were glad to be back from their holiday and raring to go. Some of the issues covered included:Welcoming Matt Walker onto the staff. He is starting in our Business, Design and Technology Faculty today. He is a very welcome addition to the Technology Department as we have been running short in that area since the Summer.

I also took the opportunity to congratulate all the pupils and staff who took part in the National Mod which was held in Fort William over the holidays.

Our 12 pupils and staff, Murray Hamilton and Joan Reynolds enjoyed a great trip to Laurinburg to celebrate 25 years of the Exchange.

Iain Fulton & David Duncan enjoyed an educational trip to Malawi and hope to continue our links with them. Pupil exchange next year.

Aimee McIntosh took the pupils who are heading to Croatia next year to Aviemore for an expedition. This went very well and everyone had a great time.

I enjoyed a trip to Buckingham Palace to meet with the Duke of York as part of an Educational Conference where 100 head teachers and 100 business men/women were invited to hear about Industry links. This invite came as recognition to all the excellent work we do in promoting the importance of skills in education and of ensuring our youngsters are prepared for work.

At the start of each term I always ensure that all staff go over our Vision & Values with pupils during My Time and that they also go over the “Basics” – Get to school on time in full uniform with all necessary equipment, respect all and remember you’re getting ready for work.

Self-Evaluation is crucial to taking forward all aspects of the school, which is why we run so many surveys and focus groups. However, I’m conscious we need to make more of the evidence we are accumulating. I’m keen to get more volunteers involved in a strategy group.

School Improvement Plans are usually written in the Summer term across the country, based on SQA data from the previous August . This has never made sense to me and has just become a habit most schools follow. I have decided to bring the whole Improvement Planning process forward, so that the new plans are written over October / November. This gives staff time to evaluate the SQAs Insight data as well as carrying out their own pupil focus groups / surveys and from information the PTs gleam from their observations.

Pace & Challenge has been one of the HMIs most persistent and consistent areas of focus for the last couple of years. However, most Heads I know agree there is no clear definition of this; so the school will come up with our own collectively, based on what we gleam from HMI reports but also based on a common understanding of our own staff. This shared understanding of exactly what we are looking for will help ensure a consistent evaluation of the learning going on in classes across the school.

We usually have around 35% of our pupils applying to university, and whilst the closing date is not until January, we are providing support now for all pupils interested in applying. One of the first things we do is go over the UCAS process in an assembly – to be held– Friday period 2.

Oban High School is a fully comprehensive school and we have pupils with a full and wide ranging level of interests and abilities. As such we run a number of different initiatives to support them. This week, we’re kicking off our “Assertive Mentoring” programme; our “Living Life to the Full” group and we begin individualised programmes for our “Gifted and Talented” youngsters who are not fulfilling their full potential. They’ll be glad to know this will enough a wee bit extra Study Support, extra Homework and more 1-1 meetings with their teachers.

Finally, all our staff were reminded that tomorrow night we return to our professional learning programme with a continuation of work centred around improving and developing our success criteria and learning intentions.

That was this morning’s discussion with staff. After that I had the pleasure of meeting both our Senior Pupil Leadership Team along with, for the first time, our new Junior Pupil Leadership team. Alex Craik, DHT, and I discussed the need to get cracking with setting up their committees to run the forthcoming Children in Need Charity events; the Junior Jingles (Dance) and Senior Jingles (the biggest social event in the calendar).

There were a few other things in between but clearly I can’t blog everything.

This was my second post in my new blog and perhaps I got a bit carried away… but I thought some may be interested in how we start the week. Hopefully, this gives you a wee flavour of what I / we are up to in OHS.

Arghhh… just as I completed this I received a phone call to say that my newly appointed Art teacher, due to start next Monday, after a vacancy running since the Summer, has decided not to come after all. So you see, not all runs smoothly in our school.

Here’s a picture of the new Junior Pupil Leadership Team mentioned above.

My First Post

Never thought of doing a blog before. Too self indulgent I thought. However, a few folk prompted me to  use this as a way to describe the great things we do in Oban High School. The first problem I encountered in setting up a blog was that there’s more than one Peter Bain so my name had to be changed slightly… so don’t forget to look for the ‘wrong’ spelling if you’re searching for me.  Peter Ba1n.

Even although the pupils and most of the staff have been away on a two week holiday, the school was still open and we had technicians and janitors carrying on with a lot of the behind the scenes work to get us ready to come back tomorrow.

It was busy too for a few teachers with an exchange trip to Laurinburg in North Carolina; we had a couple of teachers in Malawi making links with a school over there and I was invited to Buckingham Palace by the Duke of York to discuss the importance of schools delivering skills for the workplace.
And on top of that we had lots of our pupils competing in the MOD, in Fort William.

That’s probably enough for now. Keep your eye on the OHS FB page for lots photos.

Hope everyone who had a holiday enjoyed themselves. Time to get back to work, or at least to work out how to use this blogging App.