All bouquets no brickbats

15th September 2000 at 01:00
Being nice to the head can be good for your school, if the glowing reports for St Peter's Primary in Galashiels are anything to go by, writes Raymond Ross.

In their recently published report of a standard inspection at St Peter's Primary School in Galashiels, Her Majesty's inspectors judge that there are no "good" aspects and no "fair" aspects in the effectiveness of the school and how well it is managed.

On the other hand, there are no "unsatisfactory" aspects either. All 22 aspects covered by the HMI report fall into the category "very good".

"The number of thank-you letters and phonecalls from parents, many of whom stop staff in the street to congratulate them, has been humbling," says Barbara Adams who has been head at the school for four years.

"I hope it will boost the teaching profession at a time when the press tends to pick up on the negative in education. We're not saying we're the best. All we're saying is that we're demonstrating good practice."

But what is the good practice in a school with 228 pupils from a mixed catchment area that has earned such a glowing report?

Wading your way through the "well led", "well supported", "well written" comments in the report, where you are in danger of drowning in compliments, you are struck by one short sentence: "The ethos of the school was outstanding."

"It is about ethos and teamwork," says Mrs Adams, "where there is caring, sharing and supportiveness without which a school cannot function. We have pushed Promoting Positive Behaviour (PPB) in the last year, which has to have a whole school approach, and through this we consulted widely with parents and pupils. It's about high expectations - not just in the curriculum but in behaviour as well."

Part of the management strategy here is about instilling confidence in staff as well as in pupils.

"You have to give the staff the confidence to teach and to be reflective practitioners," says Mrs Adams. "Learning to be reflective practitioners leads to a drop in stress levels. Timetabling is entirely in the hands of the class teacher, though management has an overview of the balance and structure of the curriculum.

"Similarly, we monitor the targets set and encourage teachers to make them realistic. We frequently tell the staff they're trying too much. It's like PPB with the pupils. You tell the staff they're doing a good job because they are. The important thing is to recognise it."

Part of this confidence strategy also involves consultation with class colleagues.

"We have six consultations with staff every year," says Mrs Adams. "These began as half-hour sessions after school, but the staff wanted more time. So we now release staff for half a day, with cover, to consult with management and to give quality time they can use as they see fit.

"This kind of approach promotes professional judgments and assessments by the teachers themselves and that ultimately reults in raising attainment."

Surprisingly, given the praise for "ethos" and for its strong community links in the HMI report, St Peter's does not have a formal pupil council or a school board. It does, however, have "pupil committees" which discuss matters like road safety and decide on school trips, and a very active parent teacher association which, says Mrs Adams, is "open, honest and supportive". A school board will be set up by Christmas.

One of the many areas singled out for praise was the nursery class and how well it was integrated with the school as a whole.

Depute head Pat Fisher says: "It's a close relationship where we plan a lot together and this has a positive effect in later years. You have to respect nursery education in its own right and not regard P1 as a fresh start. You have to value what has gone before."

The pace of learning at St Peter's also impressed the inspectors. "A suitable pace of learning is effected through staff consultation," says Mrs Fisher. "You have to create confidence in staff to predict targets pupils will achieve, and you encourage them to be specific in their praise of pupils while setting expectations for further development."

But if a suitable pace of learning is one key to success at St Peter's, so too in terms of staff development is gentle change.

"A gradual pace of change brings about appraisal in a non-threatening way," says Mrs Adams. "You should not over-react when new initiatives come in. You have to try to see how they might help your school. Plan realistically with high but attainable expectations. Being realistic helps to avoid becoming overburdened with paper work. Without change there can be no progress."

Pupils too are encouraged to be independent and in the case of P7 to be reflective practitioners as well. P7 pupils help out in the library and the school office. They act as buddies for the lower school pupils during lunch time. They also do paired reading with them and write their own stories aimed at the younger pupils, which they read to them and then discuss with them.

Extra-curricular activities in which parents play an active role are also high on the agenda with clubs for football, rugby, chess, guitar, art, netball and a special gymnastics class for the infants.

But is there a single key to success which St Peter's can provide?

Mrs Adams replies: "I don't think so. Every school is different and you have to do your best in your own school. I would say, though, that support is a key word. You have to value staff and pupils for who they are and what they can do, have confidence in them and support them where they feel they have weaknesses."

This works both ways at St Peter's where the staff say it with flowers and the headteacher is often reduced to tears. "I feel valued and that gives me the confidence to lead," says Mrs Adams. "Staff keep sending me bunches of flowers and making me cry!"

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