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Power of positive thinking

Schools in Stoke-on-Trent are looking at things from an American perspective. Martin Whittaker reports

Do you want to turn potential into progress? Do you want to build strong internal capacity to help you confront new challenges? Do you want to boost levels of self-motivation and self-belief among your staff and students?

And do you think an American motivation guru who has worked with some of the world's corporate giants can help you improve your school?

Nigel Rigby, director of education in Stoke-on-Trent certainly does. For the past five years the authority has been putting every person in its primary and secondary schools through US-style motivation training programmes.

By the end of this school year nearly 10,000 people in Stoke, including pupils, teachers, classroom assistants, school secretaries, and even parents, will have undergone training run by Seattle-based company The Pacific Institute, at a cost of pound;450,000.

The only other organisation in the world to take the company's programmes on board on such a grand scale is the construction equipment giant Caterpillar. The programmes are designed to raise people's motivation, aspirations and self-esteem - for example, by helping employees to see their jobs in a new light. The thinking is that this then has a positive impact on an organisation as a whole. Or, as The Pacific Institute's own literature puts it: "With a critical mass of empowered individuals focused on creating change in an organisation, the whole culture and operating ethos can be redirected to achieve outstanding results."

The organisation is now working with 75 education authorities and last year more than 4,000 teachers went through its training. It has won some ringing endorsements. Tim Brighouse, commissioner for London schools, is so sold on it that he now delivers part of the programme himself. And the Secondary Heads' Association is about to offer it to its members. But no education authority has taken it on board on such a grand scale as Stoke-on-Trent. Mr Rigby is a passionate advocate and believes that this training is benefiting schools and students in a town with some of the country's worst deprivation.

"It's applied psychology," he said. "There's nothing that mysterious about it. It's envisaging what you want to achieve - it places a great emphasis on self-efficacy and self-help.

"People in deprived areas tend to blame themselves. What this teaches people is no, it isn't necessarily your fault. Start talking positively. By small steps we can achieve a great deal."

So, can the power of positive thinking really help raise standards in schools, or is this simply self-help psychobabble?

The Pacific Institute was founded 32 years ago by Lou Tice, a former high school teacher from Seattle. The company has gone on to have more than half of America's Fortune 500 companies on its books.

In 1992 the company set up a UK branch and has customised its training for teachers as well as pupils across all the key stages. The Investment in Excellence programme is designed for teaching and support staff. Its aim is to help participants form a positive view of themselves and to provide strategies for coping with change.

The programme is presented by trained facilitators using a mix of DVD clips, a personal resource manual, CD-Roms and structured discussion. The Pacific Institute also offers a range of materials for pupils at key stages 1, 2 and 3, and facilitated programmes for key stage 4 and for 16 to 19-year-olds. Another programme called Steps to Excellence is available for parents and school ancillary staff.

Dr Neil Straker is a former maths teacher and HMI and is now The Pacific Institute's head of education. "We have never claimed that our work is a panacea," he said. "We think that if schools have other things in place, this really does help them move forward quite significantly. It certainly has quite a motivational effect on staff and young people."

In evaluations, headteachers claim the training has improved relationships between staff and pupils, gives teachers higher expectations of pupils, leads to more staff willing to take on responsibility, and makes them less stressed.

But The Pacific Institute makes bolder claims. It says that KS4 exam performance in schools which have put all their staff and Year 10 cohort through this training has showed dramatic gains over the period 2001 to 2003.

It cites the example of Brownhills school, Stoke-on-Trent, which improved from 9 per cent of students gaining five or more A* to C grades at GCSE in 2001, to 46 per cent this year. Three other Stoke schools have made significant gains of between 15 and 20 percentage points.

Mr Rigby said: "It's not all down to The Pacific Institute. It's down to getting things right on a broad front. But if you have all that right, if you then throw this in it gives you the edge."

Stoke says the cost works out at under pound;50 per individual taking the training. It has secured funding for the programmes mainly from regeneration neighbourhood renewal budgets and grants. Schools in Stoke have met supply cover costs themselves. In some schools, governing bodies are joining in. Pudsey Lowtown primary in Leeds is halfway through the Pacific Institute training. Headteacher Gill Lees said she wanted the school to approach it as a team.

Some teachers have initially disliked the Americanised flavour of some of the programme content. "Very often people start out quite cynical," said Geoff Pettengell, assistant head of Berry Hill community school in Stoke.

"But as they progress through the course they tend to open up. And in general I would say that 90 per cent do get a lot out of it.

How has Berry Hill benefited? "It's created a much more positive feel in the school," he said. "And some of our more challenging staff have come on board with it."

Sue Wedgwood, head of Summerbank primary, also in Stoke, says when her school went into special measures, the morale of staff, children and community hit an all-time low. First she went though the Investment in Excellence programme herself. "It's a three-day intensive course and you feel like a chewed prune at the end of the first day. It's opening up a lot of doors that you perhaps have never opened before.

"In the next two days they give you time for reflection on that, and then you go back and use those new-found skills and thoughts in an organisational sense. Now that we feel this way, how can we make a difference to the organisation?"

Sold on it herself, she took the entire staff through it. "It's raised aspirations for themselves and the children. It's given them a sense of purpose and a sense of feeling valued."

Two years ago the Office for Standards in Education declared it an effective school. Sue Wedgwood believes the motivation training helped.

"When we came out of special measures and when we had our Ofsted, we still had the same staff. And to me that said a lot."

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