Join the prize guys
Schools which feel they are making a decent stab at improving themselves can apply for public recognition in the form of an ethos award from the Scottish Schools Ethos Network. As well as acclaim, the winner comes away with a quaich plus Pounds 2,000, and the runner-up wins Pounds 1,000.
Just 11 schools put themselves forward this year for the first award, but the organisers say the surge in letters and calls over the past few months suggests there will be many more entries for the 1997-98 award before the deadline on February 27.
Co-ordinator Judith Arrowsmith of Moray House Institute of Education, Edinburgh - which set up the scheme two years ago in conjunction with the Scottish Office - says the quality of entries this year was very good but she looks forward to greater numbers.
"There was a reluctance by schools to stick their heads above the parapet. Now they're warming towards it. It brings kudos in this day and age of much teacher bashing."
She stresses that judges are not looking for impossibly perfect schools. "It feels like winners and losers when you say 'award', but you don't have to have something brilliant. Any strategy you've tried is good as long as you have evaluated it. It's the evaluation process we're interested in, not a perfect end product."
The award is in line with the Government's desire to push up standards by encouraging schools to look at themselves through a wide-angle lens, taking on board the views of parents in particular. Ten years ago, most decisions in most schools were taken by the management team with little input from anyone else.
Industrial and business representatives joining educationists on the judging committee reflects the wide perspective.
Competing for the award is an optional extra for members of the Scottish Schools Ethos Network. More than 500 schools, some of them even in England and one in Holland, have now registered. Membership allows schools to attend roadshows, workshops and conferences as well as exchange information through a newsletter or database on schemes they have tried to improve their schools.
Willie Crosbie, headteacher at this year's winning school, Castlebrae Community High in Edinburgh's deprived Craigmillar area, commends membership. "It saves everyone from reinventing the wheel in their own workplace," he says.
Naturally the ethos award receives his approval too: "It is not a Mickey Mouse award. There is a reluctance to put yourself forward as someone in the vanguard, and things are never clear-cut as to your achievement, but I would encourage other schools to try for it."
His school was motivated to compete by a desire to dispel what Crosbie calls "not the best of reputations". Here was a chance to prove something to the public and to the education authorities which had often threatened them with closure because of low pupil rolls. As Castlebrae was coming to the end of a five-year plan, it was also a time when it was evaluating what it had done anyway.
Crosbie feels the judging committee warmed to Castlebrae because its survey of what people thought of the school was wide-ranging and repeated, rather than a single project. Every two years the school asks staff and pupils for feedback based on HMI indicators of progress.
With 275 pupils now on the roll, Castlebrae has implemented a variety of strategies to become more effective in what it does. An "In Step" scheme builds up strong links with both parents and local employers. Outreach workers knock on doors of Primary 7 children in the area to raise awareness among parents of how the school has changed and what it, rather than any other secondary, can offer their child. They also aim to deepen parents' understanding of education and to raise their expectations.
Attendance and attainment have improved, and for the first time in 10 years three Castlebrae pupils are going on to university. At one end of the spectrum pupils are offered fast-track learning, and at the other end a flexible, tailored approach is taken towards the 15 per cent of pupils who are identified early as resistant to learning.
Fay Black, headteacher of this year's runner-up - Achaleven Primary in Connel, outside Oban - has this advice for headteachers toying with the idea of competing: "Go for it! And not just for the money.
"It focuses your attention on what is happening and what is not happening in your school. It is so easy to go from day to day being busy but bogged down in a rut."
Staff do have to brace themselves for what parents might say in the returned questionnaire, but Achaleven, which sends out this kind of questionnaire every three years, stresses that it can be a positive experience as parents often pinpoint things staff have not noticed.
More gates and barriers to protect children from traffic as well as tubs of plants in the playground are a result of parents' suggestions.
Awards apart, just joining the ethos network is something positive, says Miss Black. "I appreciate meeting up with people who are looking forward and not complaining all the time. You can pick up all sorts of ideas."
HOW TO ENTER THE 199798 AWARDS
The judges are looking for evidence of sustained effort and systematic evaluation. They wish to acknowledge "outstanding achievements of Scottish schools in promoting a positive approach to learning and teaching and a readiness to take into account the views of pupils, parents and teachers".
* The focus is on school ethos rather than that of a class or department * Submissions may be in writing, up to 5,000 words, or via a video of up to 20 minutes. Last year's winner used text, photographs and graphs.
* Closing date is February 27, 1998. Winners will be announced in May 1998 * For information pack and membership details, contact Gina Reddie, administrator, Scottish Schools Ethos Network, Moray House Institute of Education, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AQ, tel: 0131-558 6378. Membership costs Pounds 10-Pounds 30.