It's cool to improve
Two years ago, it seemed unlikely that Viewforth High in Kirkcaldy would survive in the new competitive climate. The school was struggling to shed the reputation it had acquired as a junior high. A successful, though damaging, campaign against closure in the Eighties had left battle scars, and staff morale was low. The fabric of the school was poor; even pupils referred to it as "mingin' '' and "a dump''.
Viewforth High seemed trapped in a downward spiral of low expectations. But now, as staff will tell you, "everyone wants to know what's happening here''.
In 1995 the school agreed to participate in a national research project, "Improving School Effectiveness". Researchers collected a mass of data on attitudes and levels of achievement, and at the beginning of last year the school - under a new headteacher - braced itself for the results.
Some of its worst fears were confirmed. Levels of pupil achievement were far too low, as were expectations. Pupils were "not enthusiastic'' about learning and intended to leave at the earliest opportunity. The school's local reputation was poor, and staff seemed unsure where it was going or how they could raise standards. Few of those questioned seemed proud of Viewforth.
But evidence also revealed that Viewforth was a happy, secure place. It was a friendly school which welcomed visitors and new pupils, and supported youngsters with troubled backgrounds or learning difficulties. Relationships among staff and pupils were good. What's more, there were ideas and a will to improve.
The new head, Carole McAlpine, never doubted that the school could transform itself by building on its strengths. She enrolled her own children immediately, an act of faith that was appreciated by staff, and embarked on a full-scale consultation exercise on the way forward.
A day's in-service training was devoted to discussion groups on a variety of topics. Timetables were suspended for an afternoon so that pupils could have their say. Two staff volunteers were dispatched to Manchester to attend a seminar presentation by a "failing'' school there that had turned itself round, and local authority personnel and the Quality in Education Centre at the University of Strathclyde supported, encouraged and occasionally advised.
The focus for improvement settled quickly on teaching and learning, and on improving standards. Lateness was a persistent problem; even staff felt that registration was unimportant and, at 15 minutes, took too long. Perhaps if the learning day got off to a prompt start, expectations and standards would rise.
From this germ of an idea, Viewforth's tutorial system emerged. By stealing odd minutes from period times throughout the day, the morning now begins with a 30-minute tutor group class, Monday to Thursday. On Mondays, pupils set their targets for the week and enter them in personal planner diaries. All through the week, under the guidance of their "teacher tutor'', they work through differentiated materials on the "basics'' and on study skills, to improve general standards.
On Friday afternoons, targets are reviewed and certificates of achievement (gold, silver or bronze) awarded. Special rewards can include a meal at a fast-food outlet, tickets for a football match, a gift voucher from a local shop - all donated as a result of the school reaching out to the local community and seeking support for its efforts. Certificates and prizes are presented at regular assemblies, where the emphasis is always on success, and celebrating endeavour in any area in or out of school. Now it's cool to be successful at Viewforth.
The tutor group system is perhaps the most dramatic of Viewforth's innovations, but there are changes and developments wherever you turn.
Pupil assembly areas have been created: "First Base'' for S1 in a surplus classroom; a senior common room for S5 and S6 pupils in a former prefects' sanctum. Around the school are bright displays of children's work and laminated signs they have made to guide visitors. The dining hall has new furniture and a music system. And senior staff can be "bleeped'' at any time, as part of a revised disciplinary policy.
Older pupils are expected to volunteer for a list of "senior student responsibilities'', such as escorting parents on open evenings or helping younger pupils through paired reading.
There is a new primary prospectus (with photographs), and P7 pupils will take part in Viewforth's show this year. They're also involved in target-setting at the primary stage, and when they come up to secondary in August they are welcomed with a "goody bag''. There are new uniform sweatshirts, popular with pupils who now take a pride in their remarkable school.
Already, academic results are improving, the roll has risen by 15 per cent in one year, and visitors can sense the positive climate. Pupils are delighted with a recent BT "Aim High'' award for an educationindustry project that required them to use their French and German during weekly visits to a local firm. The school is hopeful that this year's round of data collection will provide more hard evidence of its achievements.
Sandra Dunbar is a researcher on the Improving School Effectiveness Project at the Quality in Education Centre, University of Strathclyde.
KEY FACTORS IN IMPROVING VIEWFORTH
* Involving people * Valuing their contributions * Giving them ownership(even when the head might not agree) * Creating the conditions where things happen
WHAT STAFF AND PUPILS THOUGHT IMPORTANT
Carole McAlpine (headteacher) "Making it easier for staff to do their job in the classroom - that's what it's all about."
Senior member of staff"One of the first things the head did when she arrived was to interview all the principal teachers - and she was listening. You had a feeling that what you said, counted."
New member of staff"When initially I came on a one-day contract, the head was friendly, open and interested. On the supply round, that's not always the case."
Pupil"You see the head around the school, she's more involved in things, she talks a lot, she's friendly, she says 'Hi' to you."