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Rise of phoenix from ashes

Elizabeth Buie reports on how one young depute head turned around the fortunes of a school that had been devastated by fire

Gillian Mackay arrived as depute headteacher at King's Road Primary, in Rosyth, in December 2003, two years after the school had been devastated by fire.

Pupils and staff were working on a split site. The lower half of the school had stayed on the King's Road site, accommodated in huts, while the upper years were bussed every day to empty classrooms in a Dunfermline school five miles away.

Apart from the obvious distress and disruption to routine, the impact of the fire had been far-reaching. Everyone's morale had been affected and it had been difficult for the senior management team to bring cohesion to teachers and pupils working on two sites so far apart. Another casualty was the ability to engage parents.

Two weeks after Ms Mackay's arrival at King's Road Primary, everyone moved into a new replacement school. As 400 pupils, making up 19 classes, moved into their new premises, her job was to help bring about a fresh start.

At the time she was 27 and one of the youngest, if not the youngest, depute head in Fife. (She is now the youngest head, having moved to North Queensferry Primary.) With the full backing of the headteacher and staff at King's Road Primary, Ms Mackay made it her mission to re-engage parents in an area of high deprivation and unemployment.

"My challenge was that if children's learning and their school experience was to be enhanced, then parents' involvement in the school had to be improved dramatically. My other challenge was to lead from the centre and not from the front," she says.

She was, at the time, working towards meeting the Standard for Headship through unit three of the Scottish Qualification for Headship. Her focus on engaging parents was part of her self-evaluation every step of the way as she worked on areas such as managing policy and planning, where the Standard required her to develop and communicate school values, aims, policies and plans and develop and maintain partnerships with parents, pupils, school board, agencies and the community.

Her first steps were simply to become more visible. She would go into the playground and invite parents just to come in for a chat about things.

Initially, only a handful of parents took up her offer, but the momentum grew.

A working group was formed which included pupils and parents. The pupil delegation focused on becoming an eco-group and became almost evangelical in its aims, while the parents were set the task of writing a communication policy for the school. That policy evolved into a parents' charter which had benefits for all. In essence, it stated that the school would do x, y and z, and they, as parents, would do a, b and c.

"It was inspiring because some hadn't been sending their children to school. Now they were committing themselves to take part in the school,"

says Ms Mackay.

Parents were also given freedom to decide topics for workshops and leaflets.

Meanwhile, Ms Mackay was carrying out her own self-evaluation and measuring performance against the Standard.

Wide-ranging management changes were implemented, all of which have remained or been enhanced by the new headteacher at King's Road. These include:

* a member of the management team available to speak to a parent if they ask to see someone, making appointments no longer necessary;

* busy starts and finishes for classes up to P4 (they now operate for all ages). This sets aside a half-hour at the start or finish of the school day when a parent can come into class and work beside his or her child in whatever the class activity is, be it a writing exercise or an art project.

* a parents' coffee lounge for sitting and chatting at the start or finish of the day;

* good news letters sent out weekly when appropriate;

* parents sitting on working parties, including one on Assessment is For Learning;

* the Friends of King's Road - their parent teacher association - established and running fetes and other fundraising activities;

* a homework policy set up, under which the teacher writes a comment on the work and the parent sends back his or her comment, which aids two-way communication;

* a fortnightly newsletter.

When HMIE reported on the school in May 2005, they found the "climate, relationships and partnerships with parents and the community to be a key strength".

Of the CPD aspects of the exercise, Ms Mackay says: "It had a real rigour about it. It forced me to examine my practice within the school at a level I would never have gone to before because the Standard for Headship was very difficult to meet."

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