It's not what you teach, but how you teach it
These are the burning questions to which MSPs on the Scottish Parliament's education committee sought answers from a group of teachers from different sectors across Scotland in a specially convened session last week.
Ideas on how to raise self-esteem were exchanged, smaller classes and single-sex classes were debated and the merits of different learning styles examined, but the conversation inevitably turned to the hot potato of education - the mainstreaming of children with special needs.
Teachers welcomed the underlying principle of inclusion, but pointed out the practical impacts - having less time for those children who needed support but might not have a record of needs, or the impact on the rest of the class if one child was disruptive. It was reported that some pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) were still at a large secondary two years after it had been identified as unsuitable, because specialist provision had been closed in the area.
One special needs teacher reported that the general ability of pupils in special needs schools had fallen considerably with the switch to mainstream. Her current primary 7 children would, she predicted, be the last who were able to read and write.
"Our roll is dropping quite considerably," she said.
Jane Arrowsmith, head of Oakbank School in Aberdeen, said: "Children with SEBD don't want to be in mainstream. They are saying: 'They have left us in too long'." In many cases, they were left to "swim against the stream" before they got specialist help and that made reintegration harder.
Robert Brown, committee convener, posed the question: "There is a common perception that it is often in the later years of secondary that motivation goes wrong. Is that caused by puberty, things outside the control of a school? Or can a school make a difference?"
Maureen Henry of Shawlands Academy in Glasgow, where 45 per cent of pupils come from ethnic minorities, said: "The key is for teachers to see themselves as teaching a whole child and to take on board everything about that child." Part of the problem was that teachers with 20 to 30 years'
experience were sometimes reluctant to change their expectations.
Ms Arrowsmith agreed that it was the relationship between teacher and pupil that mattered - not the subject content.
"You could teach ancient Hebrew or astrophysics if you get the interpersonal skills right. You could offer the best outdoor resources but if the adult has the personality of a turnip, then it is no good," she said.
She advocated that schools should do more work on emotional intelligence at pupil and staff level. "If we want our young people to be emotionally intelligent, the parents or significant adults within the learning community will also need to be emotionally intelligent, which means you have to do staff development."
There was considerable scope for SEN teachers to contribute to continuing professional development for mainstream teachers, Ms Arrowsmith said.
Lynne Horn from Tobermory High extolled the virtues of small schools, where teachers could teach across the curriculum and be innovative, giving the example of teaching grammar through a game of rounders.
Teachers knew every single child and what they had done in their other subjects, and there were "no hiding places". Ms Horn said: "If a pupil has been badly behaved in geography two periods ago, by the time they come to French the teacher can say: 'You have already been like that today - now it's time to calm down'."
Eveline Garden, a teacher who works with NCH Tullibody Family Project, felt there was a need to train teachers in how they can build up relationships with families. "Schools don't have a history of working with other agencies and the integrated community school (ICS) model hasn't always worked," Ms Garden said.
Elizabeth Doherty, headteacher of St Columba's High in Gourock, which is at the heart of an integrated community of 42 schools, paid tribute to some of the excellent motivational work done by home-school link workers, but said that short-term contracts were a problem.
"The ICS programme is a good one, but we are facing the end of the funding in a year or so," Mrs Doherty said.
Some pupils would have been "lost to school", had it not been for the intervention of outside agencies. But there were still not enough outside staff involved. "Our 42 establishments have the same team as when there were 22 - and that was only a very little more than when there were five pilot primaries," Mrs Doherty said.
She described the impact that a teacher's style could make. In one classroom, the motivation might be "extrinsic" - "You learn it or you are dead" - while in another, it would be "intrinsic" - pupils were learning because they really wanted to learn.
One science teacher in her school had become a complete convert to the use of information and communications technology as a learning tool as well as teaching children according to individual learning styles.
"Obviously you can't teach 20 different styles in one lesson, but across the year he is hitting each one of the different learning styles. At the end of the day, he has them really eating out of his hand because they have so enjoyed being in that class," Mrs Doherty said.