Hard work, not magic dust

In the first of a new series, Elizabeth Buie profiles Scotland's 'top' primary head

Sandra Mitchell, headteacher of the first school in Scotland to gain an "excellent" grading by HMIE, says there is "no magic sparkle dust" to creating a good school.

Miss Mitchell is a modest veteran of the classroom, but her advice to other headteachers would be: "You need a sense of humour; you need to work hard; and enjoy what you are doing. You really have to enjoy it."

Now aged 57, she has not ruled out staying on until 65 - so she may guide Netherlee primary for a further eight years.

While the school's HMIE report last week awarded five "excellent" gradings and a further 10 "very goods" (and nothing below that), she is far from complacent. "You can always improve," she says.

Leading a school of 855 pupils - as big as many secondary schools - is a challenge in itself. This primary, just within East Renfrewshire where it bounds Glasgow's southside, is inundated with placing requests. Although the first published version of the HMIE report described the school as matching the national average in both attendance and free school meal entitlement, it has had to be corrected to state that Netherlee is, in fact, above the national average for attendance and below it for FSM entitlement.

Miss Mitchell recognises that she does not have the problems associated with large-scale deprivation that some schools face. Parents are largely very supportive and discipline is not a major issue. "Teachers in this school are able to teach," she says.

As one of the largest primaries in Scotland with around 70 teaching and non-teaching staff, she acknowledges that parents worry that their children won't enjoy a big school. "But it does not faze children at all," the head says. "They soon learn to find their way about."

Miss Mitchell argues that size can have advantages. The school has, for instance, one full-time and two part-time music specialists, a full-time PE specialist, a large ICT suite, six principal teachers, including an inclusion facilitator - a post created last year by East Renfrewshire Council in anticipation of the demands of the Additional Support for Learning Act.

The five other PTs, three of them men, have curricular responsibilities such as science and technology; art and design, citizenship and French; early literacy and numeracy; ICT, enterprise and religious and moral education; pre-five education. Of three depute heads, one has responsibility for English language, another for maths and another for additional support needs (including particularly gifted pupils).

Brenda Williams was, before job-sizing, the senior depute in the school and has responsibility for English. Netherlee's language programme is being reviewed to improve its focus on listening, talking and watching - listening because before children do anything, they have to listen; and talking because it is such a vital preparation for the world of work.

Patricia Dickson, depute with responsibility for maths, has a postgraduate certificate in maths recovery. She gives a hand to very young children who are having difficulties with maths and works with them. For the past 12 years, children have been set in maths from their return after the October holidays in P3, with primaries 4 and 5, and 6 and 7, set together according to ability. One group working at level F in maths includes a P6 pupil.

Ask Miss Mitchell what her greatest strength is and she will say "delegation". Her vision is to provide the best for the needs of each and every child and she believes that all staff in the school share that vision.

She believes the four aims and purposes of A Curriculum for Excellence - creating successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors - sum up what Netherlee has been trying to do, but welcomes the greater flexibility that the new curriculum should offer teachers.

The biggest change Miss Mitchell sees in more than three decades of working in education is the greater emphasis on monitoring pupils' work. She claims there is no secret formula to success, just "constant monitoring and checking, and looking at children's work and teachers' plans".

If there is one part of the HMIE report that pleases her particularly it is the "very good" rating given to teaching and learning. "That was very good for my staff - it showed they were doing a very good job," she says.

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