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How to be shiny, happy people;The Learning Game

The boy fell into step beside the assistant head of Govan High School in Glasgow and asked without guile: "Sir, why do you smile so much?" For Jim Rafferty the child's question was clear confirmation that in a demoralised profession he and his colleagues are bucking the trend by feeling more positive about their jobs.

Cynics might joke that the stress of teaching in the late 1990s has rendered staff doolally. Others might ask for the recipe that produces this permanent smile and makes people feel so good.

The transformation has been achieved thanks to a radical new development programme called The Learning Game, which aims to reach deep within teachers and pupils to boost confidence and achievement levels.

It may sound like psychobabble - a topic for a chic magazine that has no business in the world of education. But, it has the endorsement in its foreword of John MacBeath - a member of the Government's task force on standards.

Professor MacBeath, director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University, who acted as consultant to The Learning Game, denies that it is a lightweight package. He says it took 18 months of hard graft to develop and is "grounded in good research".

At a cursory glance the brightly-coloured package with jolly cartoon characters and graphics may appear lightweight (the first folder costs pound;245 plus VAT, including the licence to reproduce materials, and there are three more to come). But for teachers juggling many different demands on their time, the presentation has the major advantage of zest, simplicity and clarity.

Professor MacBeath says the package does much more than simply reinforce the "be positive" message. He says: "It doesn't work, doesn't last if you just say be positive. You have to go down very deep into the way children think of themselves and how to undo it and raise expectations. You have to do a lot of work. It takes a long time and sophisticated techniques.

"Far from being simplistic, The Learning Game is very radical. You have to work together to help make children more intelligent. We used to think intelligence was something you were born with, not something you could do something about."

The need for such a programme in Scottish schools is great, he says. "Scottish culture means to be rather negative. For five to 10 years, children are being told they are thick and will not make something of themselves."

Professor MacBeath predicts that although there will be cynics and subversives, most staff will warm to the programme. "The great strength of teachers in this country is that they have that spark of creativity and spontaneity. This has lots of ideas that teachers can build on and adapt to their own classroom."

Founder and programme director Norma Black stresses that The Learning Game does not produce instant results and it has to be backed up with academic rigour to raise children's concrete achievements.

Self-evaluation by Govan pupils who piloted the course designed for upper primary and lower secondary in personal and social development time over an eight-week period, indicated a 10 per cent increase in confidence.

Mrs Black, a former Cumbernauld primary teacher, developed the package from a weekend course for children called Mindstore Discovery, which she has run for the past eight years. She hopes it will reach the children whose parents cannot afford pound;150 weekends.

She also hopes it will be a rewarding experience for teachers who find it difficult to reach children who stunt their personalities and life chances by stonewalling. It is designed to reach a part of the pupils that other lessons don't reach, in the hope of raising their expectations and helping them to achieve their full potential.

The people behind The Learning Game are sensitive about any mention of Mrs Black's other half - Jack Black of Mindstore, who has attracted controversy over his lectures to sports people and businesses. The Learning Game is published by Mindstore Discovery, which wishes to be seen as a separate organisation, guided by Norma Black and Professor MacBeath.

Further information from The Learning Game, Mindstore Discovery, 36 Speirs Wharf, Port Dundas, Glasgow G4 0141 333 9393, fax 0141 333 9633.

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