The successful turn-around of Lossiemouth High, which received a critical report from HM inspectors two years ago, owes much to the empowerment of pupils as well as staff
YOU CAN'T just select people on interview because you like them; you have to choose on merit. And anything that is said during interviews has to remain confidential.
That was the verdict of a selection panel that took place in a Moray school recently when they carried out a post-mortem.
A standard scene, perhaps - except that the three interviewers were all aged 13. They are second-year pupils at Lossiemouth High, and testimony to the greater responsibility they are being given. The interviews were to pick 12 P7 pupils to take part in Columba 1400, the leadership development programme based in Skye.
Two years ago, Lossiemouth received a critical report from HM inspectors, who expressed concerns about indiscipline, attainment and leadership. They recognised a lot of good work and talented, hard-working staff, but these were pockets of success undermined by low morale.
Now, a follow-up report - to be published shortly - is expected to identify dramatic progress. An initial follow-up in March last year already pointed to a "positive start" in addressing the concerns identified in 2005.
Lossiemouth was chosen to be a School of Ambition in April 2006. It was an establishment that needed to be turned around, and the pound;300,000 provided by the Scottish Executive programme has allowed change to happen at a faster rate than would otherwise have been possible. The school has a palpable sense of excitement and possibility.
Everyone is encouraged to be creative. Anyone can come forward with an idea, even individual pupils, and forms are available for slices of the funding. Bids from teachers have pitched schemes such as ICT support for pupils with significant learning difficulties, while pupils in the Eco Schools group want to create a community garden.
Pride and energy permeate the corridors. Colourful displays of photographs show costumed troupes taking part in dance competitions, successful sports teams and ambitious drama work. Personal statements from staff and pupils in the reception lobby testify to the sense of achievement derived from energetic-sound-ing activities at Columba 1400.
Perhaps the most important display is in the office of Brenda Gifford, the headteacher, who joined the school in the summer of 2004 on an acting part-time basis, before being appointed permanently the following year.
Posters are packed with a long list of values to which the school should aspire. Crucially, these reflect the hopes of staff and pupils who want their school to be a place where they feel welcome, proud, safe - where instructions are followed and people are given time and space.
"You can't change institutions just by changing systems," says Mrs Gifford.
"You have to have people believing in the system they are using, because it works for them, because it's been designed by them."
Responses from staff and pupils were "amazing" in their similarity. She says: "Everyone wanted the same thing." She believes both should be encouraged to improve the school, rather than teachers taking the bulk of responsibility.
When she talks of important concepts at Lossiemouth High - such as focusing on solutions rather than getting bogged down in problems - these are not just messages for teachers to relay in the classroom; they are also ideas the 677 pupils are encouraged to practise and disseminate.
"Part of our plan has always been to increase the capacity of our pupils in different ways, by giving them responsibility and helping them make decisions," Mrs Gifford says. So pupils - not just from senior classes - have taken teachers for a Columba 1400 experience, made presentations at parents' night about health promotion, or addressed education directors at a conference.
One of the biggest issues in the school - identified by teachers, pupils and inspectors - has been behaviour. This was addressed at an in-service day early in Mrs Gifford's tenure, where pupils gave a presentation explaining what they wanted from staff.
It was considered so important that the role of "behaviour depute head" was created. Mrs Gifford felt it was crucial to get the right person in this role, and Donnie Carthew was chosen because his personal skills with pupils "shine through".
His work focuses on a "solution-oriented" approach throughout the school.
"It's about focusing on a way forward - identifying the problem but not spending as much time on it," says Mrs Gifford.
If a pupil steps out of line, he or she will have a "behaviour support plan" drawn up. If bad behaviour persists, the pupil may be given "time out", removed from the classroom, and the case looked at by staff in a Support for Pupils Forum. "It's not about imposing discipline, it's about changing the management of behaviour," says Mrs Gifford.
Parents are kept up-to-date - a "time out" triggers contact with the pupil's parents that same day. They may be asked to come in for a meeting where they will be told that a "solution-oriented" approach will be employed. Lossiemouth High participates in Moray Council's Solution-Oriented Schools programme, which prioritises collaborative working and the involvement of parents in improving attainment and behaviour.
Pupils from S2 upwards train to become "max agents", acting as points of contact during lunch and break times for any pupil who has worries.
Children often feel far more comfortable approaching someone closer to their own age than a teacher, Mrs Gifford explains. "Everybody is working to the same end, towards the best outcome for everybody involved, including parents - not just for the school."
Teachers, too, are being encouraged to feel more connected with their colleagues. Mrs Gifford had a new staffroom built with no nooks and crannies that might encourage cliques. The result is a circular room with chairs arranged in two semi-circles. She also gave her own large office to the guidance staff and moved into a smaller one.
Coaching and mentoring play a big part in improving teaching at the school.
Help is constantly available for teachers; it could be a two-minute chat in the corridor or something more intensive.
"Coaching is empowering because you are finding solutions for yourself and not having them imposed on you," says Heather Scott, the principal teacher of drama, who is one of the staff providing it.
It is crucial to ensure that teachers do not feel isolated, says Mrs Gifford. At the same time, she is aware that this can mean working against a deeply ingrained mindset.
"Some teachers tend to feel they should be solving problems for themselves, because there aren't necessarily school mechanisms providing support," she says.
"Some would feel a sense of failure, asking for support. That's very much, perhaps, how education has been. As teachers, we are taught to survive and not necessarily talk about things that are difficult."
A large sign at Lossiemouth High's entrance informs visitors that they are in a School of Ambition. The underlying message is that ambition is not a set of edicts laid down from on high, rather a reflection of the hopes harboured by everyone involved with the school - teacher, pupil or parent.