Control, come in, we have a problem...

4th March 2005 at 00:00
In the same way that my flat in Oban is a home away from home through the week, my husband's office at Tarbert Academy can sometimes be the office away from the office at weekends.

So it proved one Sunday recently when, our home PC having more bugs than the infectious diseases ward of a big hospital, we went in to catch up with the previous week's "To do" list.

On these infrequent occasions when I am admitted to my husband's inner sanctum I usually have a good sniff around, as you do, and that weekend unearthed a little gem entitled Foundations of Mission Control (though I was pointedly reminded by said hubby that you don't usually get sight of this unless you have had pupils on the NASACareers Scotland space school programme).

Surprise, surprise, the "foundations" translate nicely into the educational forum: to instil within ourselves these qualities essential for professional excellence:

* discipline - being able to follow as well as lead, knowing we must master ourselves before we can master our task;

* competence - there being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication, for space will not tolerate the careless or indifferent;

* confidence - believing in ourselves as well as others, knowing we must master fear and hesitation before we can succeed;

* responsibility - realising it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each of us, and we must answer for what we do or fail to do;

* toughness - taking a stand when we must, trying again and again, even if it means following a more difficult path;

* teamwork - respecting and utilising the ability of others, realising that we work towards a common goal, for success depends on the efforts of all I Measuring my own efforts against these very laudable qualities, I often feel sadly lacking. At one recent meeting, for example, I almost lost the will to live during a discussion about staff making visual checks on electrical equipment. Health and safety for staff and pupils is, of course, important but the sheer practicality of implementing a record-keeping system of these checks without adding another burden to teachers' intolerable workload defeated me.

Throughout the hour-long discussion I could not help but reflect that, almost a decade after the Dunblane tragedy, we still are unable to secure our school building. For us, this is a much greater risk factor.

The real burning issues for teachers are not safety checks, but the fact that they are required to do more and more on the improvement agenda, working with a pupil cohort in which there are increasing numbers of challenging and disaffected youngsters.

The majority of our profession rise to the challenges and do an excellent job, although it often feels that as we raise our game yet another notch we are only playing catch-up. It feels less like mission control and more like mission impossible.

As headteachers, we are only too aware of the peaks and troughs of the school year. The troughs tend to occur in November and JanuaryFebruary.

Our benchmarks are: is this trough worse than the one at the same time last year? What are other schools experiencing?

When my teachers' reports about the downward trend in pupil behaviour match what other colleagues in our authority are experiencing and my experience chimes with that of the many headteachers with whom I am in contact, then this is cause for real concern.

We can only respond in two ways: firstly, continue to bring the issue to the attention of our professional organisations, our authorities, the Scottish Executive and SEED; and secondly, re-examine our own practice to refocus on what we know is effective, share good practice and search for other ideas.

We used part of our staff development days to work on the latter approach and organised activities so that all staff would have an opportunity to share views and good practice. We typed up our findings and will act on the suggestions for improvement, but we all know that it won't be a magic bullet. We need a great deal more help in combating this trend of poor behaviour than is on the table.

The Executive's recently announced funding for additional support staff will translate roughly into one classroom assistant for our school of over 1,100 pupils. While every little helps, this is plainly not enough. What we need is for the powers that be to listen, to hear what we in the profession are saying: "Houston, we have a problem."

Linda Kirkwood is headteacher of Oban High

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