Branching out on the journey to excellence
St Mirin's in Glasgow was Scotland's only entry to make the shortlist of the Outstanding Primary section in the TES Schools Awards. A caring ethos and a drive to boost attainment in children's writing were just two of the ingredients that helped place it among the very best.
Asked why she thinks St Mirin's is the only Scottish entry to make the Outstanding Primary School shortlist for this year's TES Schools Awards, headteacher Anne McFadden says: "I do feel we're quite outstanding in the way we care for the children."
It's the first, but by no means the last, time that the word "care" comes up in conversation with staff, parents and pupils at the school that recently received the best HMIE inspection report to date for a Glasgow primary (with an "excellent" rating for children's learning experiences and for meeting their learning needs).
Crucially, it's not just adults that use the care word. Staff at the school are kind, says Christopher Shields, a P7 pupil: "They care about what you're doing. They look after you."
"If you hurt yourself, they get worried," says Eamon Carr (P4-5).
The children also appear to enjoy school. Pupils talk about playing games during lessons. For the younger ones, this is just "having fun", but older pupils realise the purpose.
"I like the whole school, but I think the teachers are really good," says Andrew Maclean (P6). "Lessons are fun, but you're learning at the same time - learning through games."
Several children mention maths as a subject whose tendency to tedium is leavened by active learning. But it's the writing at St Mirin's that features most strongly in the TES Schools Awards application. Attainment in writing has "improved significantly", say inspectors. "In English language, all children listen very attentively to their teachers and to each other . They produce very good standards of writing in a range of contexts."
The key to this is the Big Writing scheme introduced across the school four years ago, says Mrs McFadden. "Attainment was already quite high, but not high enough, the teachers felt.".
Feedback sought from pupils showed many aspects of writing, as then taught, that did not inspire or motivate. "Following that consultation and self-evaluation, we adopted strategies that encouraged a much more interactive approach - using stimulating resources put together by support staff," says Mrs McFadden
The children in Betty Laurie's P2 class are using some of those resources right now to tell her what they think of a basic sentence that's up on the board: "The baby was crying."
"Use your traffic lights to tell me what you think of that," she urges. "Is it red, which means we could do much better, or amber - a bit better - or is it fabulous already, which would be green?
"Oh my goodness. Why have you given me nothing but reds and ambers?"
- "There's not enough words."
- "It's not interesting enough."
- "It's too short."
- "Cos it's spring."
- "Cos they're growing."
- "Cos they're all over the branches."
- For more about Big Writing, see www.andrelleducation.co.ukabout-usour- consultantsros-wilson
Talents of a lifetime
One reason that pupil support assistants at St Mirin's were called an "outstanding team" by inspectors is that they bring talents from previous lives, suggests Margaret Whyte.
"I worked for 20 years in the deaf community, so I have sign language," she says. "I do it with the kids at golden time and in a series of lessons on disabilities in P4-5. They love talking with their hands. All Glaswegians do. I also play the guitar."
"I'm from a nursing background, so you're there to plaster their wee knees," says Mary McDermott. "Mainly, though, it's about them seeing you as approachable. I'm a bit of a big kid myself."
Eileen O'Brien came to the job initially because her son has dyslexia. "He got lots of help at his school, so I decided I wanted to help too. I go with them on their trip to the Lake District each year. You encourage the kids who aren't confident to try things out along with you, and you can just see their confidence grow."
Anne Monaghan is the quiet one, say her colleagues, but she is wonderful at art. "I coached a dozen children recently and we made a huge poster based on the American flag and presented it to an athlete," she says. "I do art masterclasses with the P7s."
"Then there's the computer skills you helped the rest of us with," Mrs O'Brien reminds her.
"Yes, and why are the branches so high? What's up there that's nice?"
The answer hits several tots at the same time. "The sun!" they shout excitedly.
"That's right. The leaves are growing up to the sun. Let's take a wee branch with lots of buds on it back to the classroom. We'll put it in water and watch them opening out."
The teachers are "skilful in their use of questioning", the inspectors reported and, as just demonstrated, it's an invaluable skill at all stages, Miss Devine says. "We feel we do it well - questioning the children effectively to lead their learning and connect it to the wider world."
Active learning has been a focus for development in recent years, says Ms Hughes. "In the infant department and with next year's P3s, we no longer use workbooks at all," she points out. "We do it all through activities in the classroom and outside it."
Big changes like the writing programme, active learning and preparing for the new curriculum have worked out well at St Mirin's, says P6 teacher Anne Marie Gallagher, because management has made it happen gradually.
"We've taken on the cross-curricular aspect of the new curriculum, starting with one topic last year, and then two - it really motivates the kids," she says.
But so too does the pupil research that is integral to the new way of working, says P3-4 teacher Mary McFadden: "We're used to giving them information. But now they get on and find it using computers and the school library, then come back and talk to each other. They've really taken to that, because they're not limited by what you supply. They have endless possibilities."
Again, this change had to be made in small steps, says Miss Gallagher. "We were giving up control - and teachers like to be completely in charge at all times."
Sharing good practice may be more important than formal continuing professional development in making these new developments work, say the teachers. "But even when sharing ideas with colleagues, there's always an element of uncertainty when you try something new," says P6 teacher Fiona Currie. "Things work differently for every class. You have to be adaptable.
"The new ways we've been trying are training us to be flexible. If a class brings you a set of research and outcomes different from what you expected, that has its own value. You're developing at their level and around their interests, which makes it more worthwhile."
For P5 teacher Kirsty McFadyen, the ethos at St Mirin's is about caring for everyone, not just the children. "I haven't been teaching here very long, but they've really welcomed me," she says. "Of course, it helps that I'm a former pupil and some of the teachers once taught me."
The staff were overwhelmed by the HMIE report, says Ms Currie. "It's your job and you just get on with it quietly," she says. "You tend to assume every school is as good as yours. But clearly they're not. It wasn't just the report - it was the informal remarks they made to us. They called St Mirin's Primary the `hidden gem'.
"I still can't say this without filling up," she adds, visibly doing so. "One of the inspectors said that if she had school-age children, she would send them to our school."
At the start of the lesson, Mrs Laurie had enlisted the help of a couple of old friends up on the wall. "Walt has told us what we're going to do. Wilf is now telling us two things: we need to put words in the right order and we need to make the story interesting. How will we do that?"
Word suggestions from the infants to improve the sentence by describing the baby include "little", "sad" and "hungry".
"Let's write down `hungry baby'," suggests Mrs Laurie. "Now, could we put another word that says how the baby was crying at the end of the sentence, before this punctuation mark. What is that called?"
Working together, pupils and teacher soon reconstruct the sentence: "The hungry baby is crying loudly," which gets unanimous green-light approval.
Outside in the tidy, well-decorated corridor, depute headteacher Pauline Devine summarises the journey that led to what we've just seen.
"We've spent a lot of time and money on supporting the teachers, because with Big Writing we were taking them out of their comfort zone," she says. "We got our classroom assistants to make the traffic lights and punctuation fans the kids use for feedback and peer and self- assessment.
"We got parents in to help cut them out, stick them together and laminate them. If you want everyone to buy into something new, you need to give them the tools to do it."
All classes now have a full set of writing resources, but it's about more than that, she explains: "The children have to be trained from a young age to use them, and when you're doing that, the criteria you give have to be very specific - `Have you done this or that?' - so they can assess if they have done it well."
Another feature mentioned favourably by the inspectors was that St Mirin's provides pupils with "two hours of good-quality physical education each week". That's the average over a year, says Miss Devine, and includes the kind of active outdoor education an infant class is getting beneath a tall tree in the playground, whose leaves are uncurling from a myriad of buds to soak up some April sunshine.
"We're looking for signs of spring," says P1-2 teacher Maureen Hughes, as the city kids gather around the lime tree's trunk and study its low- growing shoots and twigs. "Where are most of the leaves - high up or low down?" she asks them. "High up, yes. Why do you think that is?"