Hearts, minds and a realistic attitude

17th March 2000 at 00:00
Linksfield Academy in Aberdeen is a community school which serves a large catchment area that is more widespread and divided than Viewforth's. It too has its pockets of deprivation along with high-rise flats and low educational expectations, though it is a less homogeneous community.

Linksfield's education action plan has been awarded pound;250,000 a year for three years, and already the acting headteacher, Bob Erridge, says there have been major gains, such as the installation of a computer-based independent learning system (ILS), the setting up of a behaviour base in the school, the appointment of a family liaison officer and of a social education tutor, and closer links with primary schools.

The ILS Successmaker software has been installed in the secondary school and its four associated primaries (Donbank, Hanover Street, Seaton and St Peter's RC) to allow pupils from the start of P6 through to the end of S2 to receive a weekly input of both English and maths at their own level and pace. Linksfield is using it on 20 networked machines, while another 20 are being allocated to the four associated primaries.

"The system has a proven track record and is helping to motivate youngsters, increasing enjoyment of lessons and improving literacy and mathematical skills. S1 and S2 pupils are going three times a week now for English and maths and we hope to expand it to S3 next year," says Mr Erridge.

"It's aimed at all pupils and responds to performance levels when monitored by teachers or our ILS co-ordinator. It's intelligent, interactive software with a spectrum of difficulty to stretch pupils who all enjoy it and who are highly motivated as a result."

Costing more than pound;120,000 from Linksfield's EAP award, the sum is, says Mr Erridge, "a positive investment" as the program produces a great deal of information about pupils' progress which can be easily accessed, and pupils can keep their own record of progress booklets. It also helps with regard to primary-secondary transition, because it ensures progression and continuity in basic literacy and numeracy.

The ILS co-ordinator regularly teaches in the associated primaries along with a modern languages teacher (French and German) and a science teacher, reinforcing links with the primary schools.

Another major development has been the new behaviour base. Decorated by the pupils and staffed by 2.5 full-time equivalents (1.5 from EAP money), the base is "not a sin bin", says Mr Erridge.

"You have to complete an application form to get in and I think it's viewed positively by the pupils, though it's far from being a badge of pride. It provides an appropriate environment for youngsters receiving lessons at one remove from their lassmates and prepares them for a return to mainstream classes as soon as possible. The behaviour support teachers also go into the classrooms."

Marie Morrison, the family liaison officer, funded totally out of the EAP award, "is making a big difference already since her appointment in November", says Mr Erridge, "with some of our confirmed refuseniks now turning up and adopting a more positive attitude as she reports back to their homes regularly. This strengthens links between school and home and it allows us to intervene at an early stage when problems begin and has already raised attendance levels. You can't raise attainment without raising attendance."

The appointment of the social education tutor to deliver PSE has also helped release guidance staff to give more one-to-one time to pupils in their care, allowing them to spot and assist with problems as early as possible.

Six of Linksfield's class teachers are also working in their own time (paid through EAP) to develop courses for pupils who find Standard grade foundation level too difficult. These are Access courses, two of which (science and languages) are completed. They will be used from June at Linksfield and eventually, Mr Erridge hopes, by other schools in Aberdeen.

"Education action plans are not magic wands," he warns, "and your geese aren't going to become swans overnight. But we are putting in resources that on any reasonable analysis should bear fruit. Of course, there are no guarantees.

"It's a hearts and minds campaign, though there are attainment thresholds in any catchment area that have to be borne in mind. I'm very realistic. I was born in this area and I've been teaching 40 years in Aberdeen schools.

"We have been encouraged to be innovative and diverse and imaginative, and also to meet the status quo's targets. We will still have to meet our targets."

For both Linksfield Academy and Viewforth High school, good practice, ICT innovations, behaviour support strategies, community and further education links - all that is being pursued under the banner of the education action plans - will have to be firmly embedded in the curriculum and in the ethos and everyday practice of the schools, if it is to be sustainable when the money runs out in 2002. Both schools are relatively small with pupil rolls of 370 and 450 respectively, which may help.

Public perceptions have led Aberdeen and Fife parents to seek placements for their children elsewhere, something which the two headteachers find frustrating and unjustified. If the action plans are to have a significant effect on their schools, it will not only be the Scottish Executive who will judge positively, but also the potential parents.

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