Glasgow fights failure with learning skills

The emphasis on turning round "failing schools", reinforced by the Prime Minister at his Downing Street education summit, tends to focus on charismatic heads.

But at St Gerard's Secondary in Glasgow's Rab C Nesbit country, whose misfortunes are by no means all of its own making, they believe something rather more deep-seated may hold the key to progress. The development of learning skills is seen as a way of giving pupils greater confidence and self-esteem by identifying goals and helping them work towards them.

The object of the learning skills initiative, which was the subject of a conference in the city last week, is ultimately to improve schools' performance, although Brian Fowley, the depute head who taught the programme to first-year St Gerard's pupils last year, says there is no hard evidence of that yet.

The project is being extended this year to second-year pupils and a network has been set up to extend it to nine other secondary schools. Anne Hood, depute head at Garthamlock Secondary, believes the approach is "quite revolutionary and a valuable tool for teachers".

An evaluation is being conducted by the Quality in Education Centre whose director, John MacBeath, is enthused by the possibilities of the new approach. Professor MacBeath, a member of the Scottish Office school standards action group, comments: "This programme has tremendous potential because it is at the cutting edge of the latest developments on things like the learning brain, accelerated learning, thinking skills and so on. It introduces youngsters to techniques such as speed-reading and mind-mapping which releases them from this dreadful panic about what to do with the blank page."

Matthew Boyle, a physics teacher at St Gerard's, which has battled against uncertainty over its future for some years, devised the learning skills pack which he calls "a marvellously simple but powerful technique, almost magical". Glasgow's education department is equally impressed and wants Mr Boyle seconded to spread the word across the city.

"The objective is to make pupils more receptive to learning and more responsible for their school careers," he says. "Many pupils have a fixed idea about what they will do after school and this is naturally influenced by others around them. If further or higher education is not a common goal, pupils are less likely to consider that either.

"The careers service is invaluable but some pupils are not receptive. The link is not always made to allow the children to know what it takes to reach a career where they achieve their potential. And teachers do not always feel able to encourage what seems to the pupils unreachable careers or goals."

Mr Boyle says that pupils can be encouraged to step outside their own immediate preoccupations and horizons, "like taking a child in an imaginary helicopter to look down on their lives". He admits it is an ambitious target but early signs show that it is "helping a little for all children, and a lot for a few".

"The absolutely critical key is to change people's mind-sets, a bit like retuning your radio to ensure you receive the signal you want. It is very difficult to persuade disaffected youngsters in Glasgow or anywhere else to believe they might have a career in engineering or medicine unless you do do that. This also means changing teachers' mind-sets, raising their expectations of what pupils can achieve and not dismissing pupils as having little or no potential. Education has too often been concerned not with enabling but with filing, slotting kids into drawers in a filing cabinet once you have made up your mind what they can and cannot do."

The programme involves helping pupils identify what is meant by short and long-term memories and enhancing their ability to access them. Mind-mapping techniques help them to realise that memory is triggered by pattern, colour or dimension. This allows teachers to cast their net wider when helping pupils to master new knowledge. "It is vital to raise teacher awareness of this and show that right-brained pupils approach learning in a different way", Mr Boyle states.

Advice is given on the best study environment for them and their families. "We have no hard and fast rules on time. If a pupil doodles while learning or listens to background music, we remember that they are learning. Of course, some pupils will study in more formal atmospheres."

Clear notes are given for study, helping pupils plan their work. The advice is 25-45 minutes maximum for fresh information and longer for revising. "Timetables are made for evenings as well as days," Mr Boyle says. "We encourage them to ask, 'what do I really want to see?'. We also suggest remembering their study goal."

The signs so far appear to augur well for a school where only 57 per cent of last year's fourth year achieved five or more Standard grades at any level, against 79 per cent in Glasgow and a Scottish average of 89 per cent. St Gerard's is therefore officially the second worst secondary in Glasgow.

Mr Boyle stresses the need to "challenge pupils" beliefs in their own abilities. There is no point in learning the techniques if they are not going to enhance your ability to learn.

"We allow pupils to recognise their abilities through marked improvement and recognition from their peers, using past successes as motivators for next ones. This allows pupils with high esteem to encourage others by pointing to achievements which their lack of self-belief prevents them from recognising. Target setting then allows the pupils to focus on short-term achievable goals."

Matthew Boyle has one advantage in trying to persuade his pupils to raise their sights. He says he did not achieve his own potential at school and left with two Higher C passes. A diploma in engineering and English at night school was followed by a university degree.

What first-year pupils said

* "I think learning skills will help me to do better in school because we learn to do other thing's we didn't even know about like mind maps, how your mind works and also it is a little interesting." - Lindsey McCrone

* "I think learning skills will help as we get older and the work get harder and we can remember lot's of thing by useing mind maps and everything ele's we have been taught." - Lisa McGroarty

* "I think the learning skills course helps pupil who have just entered secondary school. It helps you learn how to use your brain and memory. It is the best course out. It helps build up mine and my classmates confidence. " - Gordon Rainey

* "Yes I think it will help us in school because you use mind maps and it helps you to remember more things. And it will help you to consantrate more easier and put things in your mind into long term and short term memory. " - Stephen Brawey

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