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Better staff equal better results

Education conveners met in South Lanarkshire last week to learn from the experts, reports Neil Munro

The key to raising pupil attainment is to invest in the professional development of teachers, a leading headteacher said last week.

Bob Murdoch, of Earnock High in Hamilton, told education chiefs: "You won't raise attainment much by structures or even by dwelling on practice in the classroom unless the quality of teachers is itself of the highest standard."

Margaret Ross, the Earnock High depute, said school management had a duty to encourage teachers to believe in the possibility of improved attainment. "If they believe they can, then they will," she said.

An HMI report praised the school's "exceptionally highly motivated staff". The effort has already paid off, Mr Murdoch says, as fourth-year pupils notched up a 50 per cent improvement in exam results last year compared with 10 years ago. Around 35 per cent go on to higher education against just over 10 per cent in 1987-88.

Earnock began by putting an emphasis on the nature of learning. "We wrote to the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum eight years ago to ask if they could help us," Mr Murdoch said. "They told us this was the first time any Scottish school had ever asked about learning and teaching."

The school now targets its resources on learning and teaching and, through a focus on professional staff development, has adopted four special initiatives: study support, supported study, specific examination support, and priority for a number of pupils at risk.

Study support is an alternative to Standard grade and is taught by those the school regards as its best teachers. More than half of the third and fourth year, including some at Standard grade Credit level, receive this additional help which means cutting back from eight to seven subjects. Four years ago only 30 pupils were involved.

Mrs Ross says there are no problems persuading parents their child should drop a Standard grade. "We proceed by working with the pupils, talking to them about their needs but making clear at the end of the day that it is their decision." Participation was high, Mr Murdoch said. "The word on the street is that, if they take study support, they will do better in their seven Standard grades."

A third of Earnock's 1,000 pupils also attend supported study classes, which departments bid to run and which include the development of learning and thinking skills. In addition, exam candidates have special support from January to March, again using the best staff.

The fourth initiative targets around 75 fourth-year pupils who might otherwise fail to complete internal assessments or fail to turn up for their final examinations. Half the staff volunteered to provide this support system, involving them taking responsibility for two to three pupils each.

Mr Murdoch's concluding message to the holders of the education authority purse-strings is that schools will not help pupils achieve if they concentrate only on the cognitive aspects, which account for only a sixth of the reasons why pupils achieve.

Schools must also work to raise pupil expectations, develop their responsibility, help with relationships, improve their motivation and enhance their self-esteem. "My key message is: don't forget the five-sixths," Mr Murdoch said.

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