If you want to get ahead you've got to learn to use the noddle

1st June 2001 at 01:00
THE kids at St Saviour's Roman Catholic High in Dundee have another name for Maggie Clark, the school's development and learning co-ordinator - they call her the "brain teacher", a term she is not unhappy with.

Using the noddle to help pupils become smarter learners is one aim of the unique post held by Mrs Clark, a principal teacher with no timetable. She is bringing her substantial expertise in support for learning to deliver the latest research on the brain to the harsh realities of the classroom - to both pupils and teachers.

Both are picking up information about styles of learning, improving memory, techniques such as mind-mapping and essentially how to learn effectively based on firm evidence, only now filtering into schools.

The 640-pupil St Saviour's, like many Dundee schools, draws many of its pupils from disadvantaged communities and was criticised five years ago by HMI for pupil underachievement, a point echoed across the city in this week's report on the council's education department.

Mrs Clark's post is one way St Saviour's is aiming to raise the performance of pupils and teachers. Already many staff, but not all, appreciate the turnaround is well under way.

Brian Foley,the school's headteacher, admits HMI's inspection was the catalyst. "We were told we had good teachers and well-behaved pupils but they were underachieving. The inspectors were dead right. We were spending time on discipline and less on developing learning."

Two happy coincidences provided further impetus for renewal: the cabling of schools as part of the national grid and an injection of pound;750,000 over three years from the Scottish Executive's fund for action plan schools. Among various additions, it paid for extra staffing.

Central to Mrs Clark's remit is in-service for staff in the Catholic secondary and its three associated primaries. She has time to "model" initiatives in the classroom, such as mind-mapping or critical skills programmes, and translate good ideas into practice. A spin-off is a regular lunchtime support meeting in the secondary involving some 17 staff, a third of St Saviour's total.

She spreads similar learning techniques to pupils in the cluster schools while a third strand is developing an alternative curriculum for disaffected third and fourth-year pupils.

"Research tends to show that 90 per cent of staff are visual-auditory learners but we have tested all our first years and 50per cent are kinaesthetic learners, many of them boys," she says. "In practical terms, the idea of having kids sitting in rows and not moving puts many of them under stress. You are disadvantaging them if you are not taking into account the masses of research."

Misia Boran, principal teacher of music, agrees. "I used to do a lot of speaking but now I use the blackboard much more and I don't freak out if a kid gets up and walks about. I also encourage children to help each other much more and they gain by that."

As a side issue, Ms Boran has developed tapes of soothing music for staff to play at appropriate times in the classrooms. Mozart appears in science and English. Her brightly coloured class posters are also strategically placed. "It's natural when children think, their eyes go upwards, so things you want them to retain should be above eye level," she says.

When the inspectors called, they advised Mr Foley to focus on S1 and S2 and he has done it big style by setting up a computer suite to run Successmaker programmes in English and maths. It cost pound;117,000 to equip the room and buy the licences. Ian Smith, assistant principal teacher of English, describes progress in reading and spelling as "dramatic".

In June 1998, only 31 per cent of S2 pupils were achieving level E or better in reading. The three-year target was increased to 36 per cent but levels in S2 this year have soared to 53 per cent. Further rises are expected as this year's S1 pupils are already at 48 per cent.

The base in maths was even lower with only 12 per cent achieving level E or better. Things have improved but the school is two maths teachers down and cannot find replacements.

Mr Foley believes the school's BLT strategy - not involving bacon but behaviour, learning and teaching - has been vital in setting a new tone. It changed the emphasis to positive behaviour.

He is honest enough to admit he could not have introduced developments without the action plan cash. It has brought a full-time community worker into the school to expand the alternative curricula. Next in the pipeline is a lifelong learning centre based in the computer suite.

Mr Foley is aged 62 but retains an ageless enthusiasm for the learning agenda. "The key is to get the youngsters coming into school believing they can achieve and teachers believing they can achieve. The nub of it is ethos - that was something we did not have," he says.

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