A question of trust
Set where the lush farmlands of Galloway meet the Solway Firth, the village of Kirkbean could not be more idyllic. Even the name itself suggests a haven of tranquillity from the fast pace of urban life. There is one part of the village, however, that is not detached from modernity and is setting the pace in its field, and that is its school. Kirkbean Primary is one of the schools that have been selected as models of good practice in self-evaluation in the Scottish Office's recent report on quality assurance, Making It Happen in 12 Schools. It has three members of staff including the teaching head.
The key to its successful self-evaluation is a combination of informality and focused assessment by the head, Rob Bodell. He takes time off his teaching duties to work with teachers in their classroom, to help focus attention on areas for improvement. "I'm not a clipboard teacher who sits at the back of the class," he says. "I much prefer an informal atmosphere of working with the children, and chatting with them, then reporting back afterwards. So we devised a form whereby we could jot everything down that we had noticed and then make an agenda for the next meeting."
However informal the visit may be, the observations are always written on this assessment form, so that they can serve as the basis for a concise plan of action. For instance, if there are issues of resourcing in a particular subject being taught, writing down what is lacking provides an efficient way of identifying precisely where money needs to be spent.
The form neatly breaks up the areas of classroom practice being observed. It details what was being taught, how it was being taught, how the pupils were seated and what resources were being used. It has room for the concerns of both the teacher taking the class and the head, and finally the agreed action.
The choice of classes to be visited depends on a number of factors. They can simply be regular checks on subjects that are part of the school's development plan for the year. Mr Bodell undertakes these every six weeks or so, and, prior to going into a class, he will request the teaching of the particular part of the curriculum that he wants to observe.
Alternatively visits can be requested by teachers, who may want a second opinion about their management of the class. Or they can derive from matters that crop up in everyday conversation, such as the development of a pupil with learning difficulties.
Teacher Linda Wainwright sums up the trust that has allowed this to happen: "I feel that if we have any worries at all we can go to Rob and say: 'Look, can you help me out here?' - especially with management issues in the classroom. I teach P3, 4 and 5 and within that there's a lot of differentiation. That's very tricky to manage and if I'm coming unstuck, I can go and ask if there is anything that I could be doing better."
The content of the forms is kept confidential and is not discussed at the regular strategy meetings but usually at the end of the school day which, Mr Bodell says, helps to keep the impetus going. Strategy meetings, held in Planned Activity Time, happen every Tuesday and focus on the progress of the school's development plan.
This system of assessment and support has been crucial in the successful introduction of French into the school as part of its development plan. Mrs Wainwright spent a year completing in-service training, but also undertook tentative experiments so that problems could be ironed out in a "dry run".
"While I was being trained there was no obligation for us to use it straight away, but I felt that it would be an opportunity lost. So I had a shot with both my class and Mr Bodell's," says Mrs Wainwright. "It was my way of assessing myself and finding out what the reaction was going tobe before I actually had to implement it. I could then go back to my tutors and say that it didn't work."
One part of assessing the introduction of French into the school has been informal discussions with pupils about aspects of the teaching.
Mrs Wainwright argues that this helps to keep up their motivation and interest in the subject: "I can think that it's been successful but it's good to find out from their point of view if it has. I ask them to write down some of the things that they have learned. A few of the children said that there was too much writing, so I attempt to do more practical things with them now."
Mr Bodell argues that the elimination of fear and the development of good personal relationships with staff have been the key to the system of self-assessment. He says, "You can over-evaluate teachers and crowd them. They're professional people and if someone is standing over them every two minutes, then it jeopardises trust. It's about the three T's - teamwork, togetherness and timing. If either of my two members of staff watched me, I wouldn't worry about it."