If we fail to inspire self-belief, we deny children the opportunity to shine

4th May 2012 at 01:00
Show faith in your pupils and listen to their views, then watch their learning flourish

"Attainment", "achievement" and "ambition" are three of Scotland's current educational buzz-words. Steven Quinn, headteacher of Auchenharvie Academy, suggested recently that we hadn't a clue how to develop them.

He started with a wonderful parable. Fleas are powerful. They can jump more than 20 times their own height. Put fleas in a jam-jar and they soon learn to jump higher than the top of the jar and escape. Put a lid on the jam-jar and they learn a different lesson: don't jump so high, it hurts. Even if the lid is subsequently removed, they won't escape because they remember what they learned: jumping too high hurts. That's what we do, he suggested, to countless Scottish kids.

Effective leaders of learning, he suggested, recognise potential and create resources to realise it. They stress belief skills and mental skills. They then find that the ability skills, the how-to-do-it skills, come easily. Start with the ability skills, and the belief skills will never be mastered.

He fears that too many in Scottish schools don't encourage success, because they doubt the ability of their kids to achieve it. In particular, he suggests that's how youngsters in schools in our poorest communities are seen.

His answer is to push, challenge and believe in our pupils. They will repay that faith time and again. Above all, give young people real, not fake, opportunities to succeed.

He told a splendid tale. His school was visited by officials to discuss the new school toilets. He met them with a group of student council representatives. He told the officials that he was leaving; the youngsters knew what they wanted. "Listen to them and try to meet their demands."

"You have to stay," replied the flabbergasted officials. "You're responsible. You authorise the costs."

He left anyway. The results were toilets that the pupils felt they owned. Vandalism was almost entirely missing. On the one occasion when it did occur, the culprit was spoken to by his peers long before any teacher reached him.

If you want young people to be honest, be ready to be criticised. A group of his pupils ripped apart his school's personal and social education programme. He checked. Their view was near universal. What they needed were the skills to learn, to improve, to communicate.

The school radically amended its curriculum, building three periods a week of skills for all S1-4 pupils. It is working, but other strategies are being pursued.

For Mr Quinn, Curriculum for Excellence is about developing robust attitudinal skills and it's from these skills that the attainment will flow. The audience that heard him was galvanised. Perhaps he might help Mr Russell cut through the present confusion.

Alex Wood, Former headteacher works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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