Moves to integrate emotional intelligence and academic achievement have had a profound effect on senior pupils at Lochgelly High in Fife, where members of S5 and S6 now have a much clearer vision of their abilities and how to harness their strengths to help junior pupils in class and lunchtime clubs.
Originally the peer support system took the form of paired reading, with seniors helping junior pupils for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, outwith the classroom, often with no links to a lesson. As the system evolved, the connection between the pupils was linked more to the junior curriculum and the seniors started working in the classroom environment, giving support to one or two children, or even a whole class.
Curricular support, organised by the learning support and the behaviour support teams separately under their respective headings of Communicate OK and Buddying, encouraged the senior pupils to help younger ones who had been identified as vulnerable or at risk of being unfocused and inattentive during lessons. At first, the two groups worked independently, but gradually they merged into one, organised jointly by the support services.
Two years ago, by networking with a teacher from Kyle Academy, we introduced to the senior curriculum an Intermediate 1 course on community involvement. Since then, more than 20 pupils have passed the exam.
This session, Lochgelly High investigated various types of courses that would help the pupils to focus on both their group identity and their own strengths and skills in their peer support roles. Although there are many excellent outward-bound type courses, the school was looking for something different. As part of the SQA module, the pupils already received valuable advice from educational psychologists, so what was wanted was in-service experience with an emphasis on personal and group identity and dynamics.
A Positive Education conference last November helped everything fall into place. Maggie Mackay, the head of department in learning support, heard Neil Hawkes, Bart McGettrick and Norman Drummond speak about spiritual toolkits, humanity within school communities and its importance for teachers and learners. The Dalai Lama was a keynote speaker on the theme of cultivating happiness. Workshops examined the place of philosophy in schools, the power of creativity and leadership, the central role of supportive relationships and mutual respect. Restorative justice was discussed and practitioners spoke of successes in their schools.
Ms Mackay met Elaine Fitzpatrick of the World Peace Prayer Society, whose work is supported by Fife's education department. She invited her to come to the school to help set up a programme on Infinite Potential that sounded particulary appropriate for the peer support pupils.
At the beginning of March, 21 fifth and sixth year pupils travelled to the Fife teachers' centre at Auchterderran in Cardenden for a workshop led by Elaine and Tommy Fitzpatrick and an Australian colleague, Gregg Chapman.
The pupils were a little nervous at first, out of their comfort zone of the school environment. But soon after they were split into groups, the buzz of discussion could be heard. Everyone's opinion was important and listened to, within their small groups and ultimately the larger group. They also practised some relaxation exercises.
After lunch, the workshop gave pupils the opportunity to focus on themselves and any problems or issues that were creating difficulties for them. They were given strategies to deal with these.
Two groups were formed: everyone wrote a positive statement about every member of their group and the statements were passed to the individuals. It was a surprisingly positive experience, as giver and recipient.
Finally, sitting in a large circle, each person was asked to pick one statement written about them and share it. The pupils were genuinely affected by learning more about themselves and how their peers perceived them.
Everyone left with heightened awareness of their own and others' needs and a clearer vision of their abilities and strengths and how to harness them.
The pupils' reactions ranged from: "You guys have helped to make me feel more positive myself and improve my confidence. I now know that I have infinite potential", to: "I will use the skills I've learned for the rest of my life."
They had arrived a little bit unsure about a new experience and left as self-assured, confident young people. The impact was almost tangible.
Yvonne Campbell is a principal teacher of learning support services at Lochgelly High, Fife