You don't need TESS to tell you that it's not easy to get excellent ratings across the board from school inspectors. But that's what a small, single-class rural school managed to do earlier this year. "It's about creating a climate in your classroom and your school," says Judith Jardine, headteacher of Hightae Primary in Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire.
"Curriculum for Excellence gives teachers a freedom we haven't had before. If something's going well, teachers need the courage to seize the moment and carry on with it, rather than thinking, 'Oh dear, I haven't done my maths yet.' And headteachers need to support their teachers in taking that approach."
Mrs Jardine will deliver a seminar called Excellent Learning at the Scottish Learning Festival, and so TESS thought it was worth looking into the secret of her success.
First, she is insistent that subject skills still have to be learned. "We do use textbooks. They have a part to play in developing and mastering skills. But it's what you do with those skills that's important - how you apply them in contexts that are real to the children."
But that's not to say that the school doesn't step away from the norm. So, for example, plenty of material for practice with place-value can be found in the business pages of newspapers. "At early level, you'd pick adverts with small numbers. At first level you go to thousands, second level millions. There are loads of opportunities there to apply skills they've learned in textbooks to something that's real to them."
Another key component of learning and teaching at Hightae is self-evaluation. Students do this "thoughtfully" with their own work, the inspectors report, as well as offering "astute and helpful feedback to classmates ... They demonstrate very high levels of leadership and independence."
A good example of this is the community newsletter the children produce, Mrs Jardine says - entirely on their own these days. "When they started, they had support from our clerical assistant, who showed them how to do lots of stuff like layouts. Then gradually she pulled away. Now they do it all themselves."
The newsletter comes out once a month, Jack (P7) explains. "All the P7 students have duties - editor, photographer, eco news, chief reporter. Everyone in the school has to produce a piece of writing for the newsletter and the P7s have the job of keeping everybody right."
This really does mean everybody, Mrs Jardine says. "I write something for every newsletter and they'll often come back to me and say, 'Could you write a wee bit less please?' Or less often, 'We need a bit more here.'"
The main message, Mrs Jardine says, is to let children lead the learning. "Something my husband often says is: 'Follow me. I'll be right behind you.' That's what we should be doing as teachers. We set challenges for the children and we're there to support them. But we should not be doing it ourselves."
That is an easy mistake to make, she says. "Giving over this much control and decision-making to children is something that comes with experience. I've been teaching for 39 years. I used to spend ages preparing things for them - making a wonderful model, for instance, or thinking up educational games to make maths or French vocabulary more enjoyable for them. Sometimes I'd spend the whole weekend doing that, much to the frustration of my family.
"I remember one day, in particular, coming in and showing the children a beautiful model and getting hardly any reaction - no round of applause. I was disappointed. Then it suddenly dawned on me. Who was doing the learning here?
"It was me. They're not asking us to be martyrs. So get them to devise a number game. Get them to do a simple French test. Ask them to write to someone we want to invite to our school."
When given the chance, a classful of children can be more creative than a single teacher. "At our annual Christmas lunch we invited parents to come too," P7 student Joshua says. "We had to figure out seating arrangements and made menus.
"One of the guests was Flemish, so we translated one of the English menus into Flemish so they could understand it. The P7s had to wait at tables and decide who to serve first. Afterwards, the guests had entertainment prepared by the pupils. We had jokes, dancing, quizzes and games."
Older children at Hightae Primary help younger ones "very sensitively", say the inspectors, "and all children show high levels of respect to each other and to adults".
Recently, the young ones in the class were given a problem-solving task, says P7 student Euan. "It was quite a hard one too. Mrs McNeil (who provides headteacher support two days a week) asked us to work with one of the younger ones to try to solve the problem. I caught the gist quickly and thought it was fun. After, Mrs McNeil asked us to do it on a bigger scale and Harry and I worked it out first. We were a great team."
In the end, it's about having a vision for your school and working to make that a reality, Mrs Jardine says. "At Hightae, we aim to work in partnership with parents and their children to prepare them for life within and beyond school and provide a happy, fully inclusive and supportive environment where all are successful and achieve their full potential," she says. "That says it all for me."
Douglas Blane, Journalist.
- Scottish Big Writing Criterion Scale: bit.ly197FD7H
- Hightae Primary inspection report: bit.ly13Gcpuv
- Judith Jardine will deliver a seminar called Excellent Learning at the Scottish Learning Festival. To book a place on this or any other seminar, go to bit.ly13KcZpD.