An incredible journey

16th May 2008 at 01:00
If leadership is practised not so much in words as in attitude and actions, then Shauna is a star performer. Acting depute head Philip Graham describes how a pupil who was once a truant turned her life around
If leadership is practised not so much in words as in attitude and actions, then Shauna is a star performer. Acting depute head Philip Graham describes how a pupil who was once a truant turned her life around

Shauna is "one of those pupils" at Govan High. Last session, she was in S3 with an attendance rate of 35 per cent, not helped by a few exclusions. She voiced her opinion of staff in the Glasgow school with distasteful regularity and truanted the classes of those for whom she had no words.

Shauna is a pupil that, on one hand, philanthropists, educators and politicians are genuinely concerned about, but on the other, schools pour support into and see little or no return. For me, Shauna was a name on several lists - two being attendance and behaviour.

Then something happened. Or some things. Shauna didn't go on any bespoke courses designed to boost self-confidence and self-esteem (the most expensive way to tick the box of "we did all we could"). She spoke to a few adults at school who let her know that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they believed she was worth something. She became involved in our Positive Destinations programme (our name for the Neet population, the youngsters who are not in education, employment or training - or the More Choices, More Chances brigade, as they are now called).

Shauna was enrolled in the Prince's Trust xlerate with xl programme. She spoke to Kevin Sweeney, a depute in the school who has a nose for those pupils who can turn it around. For him, she fell into that category.

My first significant contact with Shauna was as she toured the school, collecting money for a non-uniform day. I had my suspicions as I paid my dues that that was the last I would see of that particular pound;1 coin, so I started making a few phone calls to find out who was really in charge. I couldn't find a single adult who was willing to claim responsibility. It then emerged that one of our colleagues in Youth Services had given Shauna the go-ahead to organise, manage and execute the whole shooting match as part of her involvement with xl.

I watched a true leader as Shauna organised her team of pupils, deployed them across the school and asked me to organise those elements which required a teacher, while resisting all my attempts to grab control from her.

I started to hear stories from the Positive Destinations group about Shauna's emergence as a leader. Her attendance was starting to creep up and every time this was pointed out to her, she smiled the way young people do when they discover they can do something to the point where people notice. Her turnaround was topped off last year by winning one of seven "Oscars" for skills development at our yearly prize giving.

My "Wow!" moment with her happened in September. I was covering the xl class for a double period, last thing on a hot Friday at the tail end of a very busy week, ideal circumstances for taking a class containing pupils with a wide variety of challenges.

I took the class into my office and asked them what they knew about planning a project. They stumbled upon the notion of running an assembly. This was ideal as, at Govan High, we know that the effectiveness of an assembly is directly proportional to the amount of pupil involvement. Depute heads and microphones are a dismal combination.

One of the pupils suggested that they could do an assembly promoting our new skills-based curriculum - perhaps advertising a new "skills course". At this Shauna reared up and said: "That's just daft!" What followed was the most succinct explanation of the meaning of a skills-based curriculum I had heard - and this is after nearly three years of working with a variety of adults around the school on our "Future Skills" programme, which had still not produced an entirely suitable idea for launching it to parents, pupils and partner.

Shauna continued: "You can get skills with everything you do in school. If you've got a skills course, it means that you don't get skills anywhere else."

In two short sentences, Shauna had summarised our Skills Core Team's point, that those establishments which set aside specific time for "skills development" were implying that skills were not developed at other times, that is, when the pupils attended traditional subjects, such as maths, English and science.

Shauna combined this statement with her healthy dislike for adult-dominated assemblies. She said: "I'm not trying to be cheeky, but assemblies are dead boring when it's just someone talking at you. We should have a DVD playing and some music - something bouncing." This was too good to simply agree with. And so was born "the DVD project".

I alerted the Skills Core Team that Shauna was onto something and so they assembled - the head, the librarian, a faculty head, a pupil support assistant and a class teacher - to listen to Shauna. After she had presented her idea, the headteacher spoke first. Bearing in mind that Shauna's experience of the headteacher's approval was at the bottom of a letter of exclusion, her face dropped when he started: "I'm going to speak as the heidie here." Shauna was expecting the big thumbs down. He continued: "This is too important not to happen ... and quickly. Let us know what you need - in terms of technology and in terms of time out of class to make this happen within a short period of time".

Once again, Shauna started marshalling a team, devising a filming schedule and setting out her vision for the DVD. It was simple but effective. Her plan was to film everything that happened around the school in short clips and display what skill was in evidence on screen. Ironically, she often came to me with updates, such as asking if she could "sack" members of her team as they were using the filming schedule as an excuse to truant classes (proof that you can't kid a kidder).

The other person who came to see me regularly was Iain White, the head. He was there to jerk my leash, so that this remained "the young people's project". No matter how harum scarum this got, it had to come from the young people. I fought my traditional instincts to take the footage home of a weekend and knock up the DVD for them.

And just as well, because a few days later, we had a visit from BBC Learning. One of Shauna's team, Alexander (another pupil familiar with exclusion), spotted the opportunity to network and it wasn't long before the DVD team was in the BBC headquarters at Pacific Quay, using its facilities and technology to edit and finalise its DVD.

There she was, once again, directing, leading, contributing and sharing. In the canteen, Shauna spotted a celebrity, approached her and said: "I'm sorry to interrupt your lunch, but I recognised you and wanted to say I really like your show."

I often wonder what impression the celebrity was left with and how it matched up to the Shauna of previous years. Our host for the day, Andy Pendry, pointed out that Shauna was a potential star. I still don't think he believes the story of her journey.

As I discussed Shauna with another depute, Nancy Belford, I learned that after Nancy had announced the dissatisfaction of one of our residential neighbours at the amount of litter in her garden, Shauna saw the solution. She organised a team to go round to the woman's house and clear her garden. Job done. In the words of the late Harold Geenen, former CEO of ITT Corporation: "Leadership is practised not so much in words as in attitude and in actions".

So the DVD is complete. What We Are Good At is the title and I am particularly proud, as I have always had misgivings that this is precisely what we do not teach our young people. If they were to go for an interview and were asked that universal and supposedly easy question, "What are you good at?", I fear the answer would feature subject titles, rather than summarising those essential skills associated with employability. We may teach French, but do pupils realise that there are other skills, such as creativity, sharing ideas, teamwork - all connectable to other subject areas and wider non-subject based experiences? Communication skills are as vital in PE as they are in English or an outward bound course, in abseiling or working in a team in an office. Shauna knows this. She may never be the academic dux and probably has an exclusion or two to go, but I wouldn't bet against Shauna's star shining the brightest.

And the DVD? Well, it is a digital testament to what Govan High is good at. We know this, but it poses further questions - how many more Shaunas are serving exclusions or reinforcing their own poor reputations through lack of opportunity or recognition of their skills? How many are locked in a traditional curriculum which will never allow them to shine, not only with their skills, but with their values?

My instinct tells me too many, but my fear is that we do not know. My hope is that by our radical and creative approach to providing appropriate and personalised learning experiences for young people in Govan High, we have a better chance than many of finding out.

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