Active in achievement

23rd March 2007 at 00:00
Exercise and a hearty breakfast improve health, concentration and behaviour at a special school

Following a blood-pounding aerobics session with her pupils, a tracksuited Angela Edwards heads for her office while the kids cool down with gentle stretches before tucking into healthy breakfasts next door.

"Have a word with the pupils," she suggests. "I'll be back soon, looking more like a headteacher."

But words have to compete with fresh fruit, toast and crispy cereal in the children's mouths, and for a time it's no contest. Eventually, swallowing hard, Brian (S2) explains that aerobics and tasty breakfasts are the highlight of every morning at Stanecastle school. "We can get breakfast at home too, if we want, before we come to school. I like the running and jumping. PE is my favourite subject."

But daily aerobics at the North Ayrshire special school is not just for sporty pupils. It's for teachers, school managers, children of all ages and abilities and sometimes even parents, says fitness instructor Lyndsay Warnock. "Kids need more encouragement than adults. We started slowly, but as everybody got fitter and learnt the moves, we speeded it up.

"The pupils here put in more effort than mainstream schoolkids. They try harder. One reason I'm sure is that their teachers are taking part and giving them encouragement."

Stanecastle school was commended by HM Inspectors recently for being "particularly effective in promoting high expectations" - to which the pupils, aged five to 18, "responded very positively".

Much has been done since then, a now smartly-suited Mrs Edwards says: "One thing that leaps out of our new annual review sessions, which give pupils much more of a voice than they've had, is their attitude to achievement.

"They talk about what they've done in music, drama, sport, working in the coffee shop. But we do have to remind them about their exam results; it's often the last thing they think of."

Good health is not usually considered an achievement. But it is a springboard to achievement for every young person, and perhaps especially those who attend Stanecastle: "Many of them will be quite sedentary out of school," says Mrs Edwards. "So it's very important to improve their fitness levels, and get them exercising every day.

"Research suggests that kids' concentration is improved with regular exercise, so it's not just physically that they're gaining. We subsidise the healthy breakfasts to make sure our children start their day well."

Along in the coffee shop - an enterprise activity run by senior pupils - the fare is fresh, but not quite so calorie-conscious. Carrot cake, banana loaf and marshmallow biscuits, jostling for space on huge plates, tempt the tastebuds of the customers - who are pupils regularly and sometimes parents and teachers, says Mrs Edwards.

"It is a great place to bring mums and children if they're thinking of coming to the school."

Matthew (S5) takes a break from attending the tables and sits down to explain how the shop works: "We do everything. We make the food. We serve it to customers and take their money. We clear up. I like all that. But the best bit is making money. This is a business. I'm going to college when I leave school."

Stanecastle is the best of several schools he has attended, Matthew says, because of the variety it offers: "We've got a swimming pool. We get technical and cookery. I like working in the coffee shop. And there's a pool table.

"I like the aerobics now. I think it's good for me. I didn't like it at first because it was hard to breathe. It's easier now, even though she goes really fast. I must be getting fitter."

While the coffee shop caters more than the healthy breakfasts for a sweet tooth, and is more sedentary than aerobics, there is no relaxation of the high expectations the school sets for its pupils, says Mrs Edwards: "People might see all these things as peripheral, as maybe wider achievement rather than simply achievement, which is how we see it.

"These activities are at the core of what we're doing, and the young people do respond very positively. We are using the coffee shop, for instance, as A Curriculum for Excellence focus for the secondary teachers. So the maths teacher is linking her curriculum with coffee shop budgeting. The language teacher is looking at adverts and posters."

Summarising expectations and relations at Stanecastle school, HM Inspectors wrote that staff and pupils have a "can do attitude to all aspects of learning".

It's a description of her school that Angela Edwards embraces: "They don't often say things like that. But they are right. We're not about what people can't do at Stanecastle. We are about what they can do."


After a lot of preparation and a small pilot study, Stanecastle school this session launched a new approach to reviewing children's achievements and teacher expectations. It is one that educational psychologist Catherine Paterson believes would be effective beyond the special school sector.

"So often pupil reviews are focused on the problems they're having, and you can spend hours talking about them. What Stanecastle does now is very structured and lasts only an hour. I believe it would work well with all young people."

During the review, children are accompanied by parents, a friend and a teacher of their choosing. The steps in the review are then: assess progress on targets from last review; compile lists of child's strengths and achievements: in school, at home, and in the community; summarise input from external agencies; set new targets.

"We put this up on boards around the room, so it's all very visual," says Angela Edwards, the headteacher. "For young kids we have photographs. The secretary types it up as we go, and kids and parents get a copy to take with them at the end."

A key element in the new reviews is that the voice of the young person is heard and actively encouraged: "In the past it was all driven by the professionals and their reports," says Mrs Edwards. "That often stopped parents and young people from contributing.

"We have been surprised by just how much young people contribute when you give them the chance. Even our most reticent pupils have things to say.

They like having a friend there, who can remind them about achievements they might have forgotten.

"The one teacher represents all the teachers, so you are not having to chase everybody. It's interactive, it's pupil-focused, and it is very much about strengths and achievements.

"By the time you get to the end, however, you have teased out any issues.

These then become the targets for the next year."

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