Schools learn that it pays to praise

Scottish schools are increasingly turning to the methodical use of praise to create a positive ethos and improve pupil behaviour.

Mearns Academy in Stonehaven, one of the schools helping to pioneer the use of "praise slips", played host to a national conference last week on "promoting excellence for all through praise and high expectations".

Maggi Howie, depute rector at Mearns Academy, told participants at the conference, organised with the Inspectorate: "If the youngsters feel good about themselves, then they will be better motivated to learn. One of the ways we make them feel good is by praising them. But it must be well deserved."

Ian Parkin, principal history teacher, evaluated the scheme's progress in his own department and concluded: "Praise is valued by pupils and does act as a motivating factor." Two-thirds of his pupils received more than three slips.

Miss Howie and Mr Parkin stressed that the system is of use only if it is carefully monitored and rewards genuine merit.

Mr Parkin said: "It is important that we communicate to school departments, and to pupils and parents, just what it is that triggers the issue of praise slips. We have to make sure we always have something tangible that we can actually see and define as what led to the issue of the praise slip. Both pupil and teacher must see clearly an incident, or a development or an improvement. "

One consequence of the slip system is that it has added considerable weight to "concern slips" or punishment exercises, Mearns has found. Mr Parkin said: "If praise is the norm, the impact of a concern slip being issued or a punishment being set is of great value because the embarrassment has then switched from receiving reward to receiving punishment."

He also counselled against imposing a paper mechanism on existing discipline systems. An ethos of welcoming achievement had to be developed using assemblies, the media and even displays of pupil work in corridors. "You can't just suddenly introduce a few slips and expect the whole atmosphere of the school to change."

Doreen Boyd, faced with raising expectations from the "all-time low" she found on taking over as head of Logans primary in Motherwell, supported Mr Parkin's cautionary note. Her emphasis has been on bringing "parent helpers" into the school. This gave the school free expertise in music, art and computing.

Heads at the conference were generally enthusiastic. The proceedings had reinforced his own ideas and suggested some new ones, Phil Galbraith of Greenwood Academy in Irvine commented. Alan Moir of Ayr Academy felt everyone had learned something about school improvement.

Jean Gibson of Woodside primary in South Lanarkshire said she would be considering how to improve the school's individual award system.

Case study: first-year maths pupils at Mearns Academy

* A star is awarded for each assessment or homework assignment gaining full marks.

* Pupils with four stars are awarded an achievement certificate.

* Pupils with stars are given the Collins Guide to Mathematics, signed by the rector.

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