Larbert learns to live the dream

25th August 2006 at 01:00
Climb more mountains, go barefoot in the park, watch more sunsets, live more and cry less . . . for the station will come soon enough.

This is not often the message teachers receive on their first day back after the holidays, but Larbert High near Falkirk decided this was what they needed to hear.

The messenger was Sir John Jones, a former headteacher turned educational guru, who exhorted teachers to be the "magic-weavers" that would make the difference to their pupils' futures.

It was Sir John's first invitation to a Scottish school to offer his vision of how teachers and students can raise their expectations of themselves. He is a government adviser on issues such as neighbourhood renewal, inner-city education, truancy and exclusion, Sir John told his audience that they should be telling themselves: "They're smart enough if I'm good enough."

He recounted the story of the school which had set its pupils into 10 maths classes according to ability. At the end of the year, the headteacher scrutinised the marks to see how they accorded with the ranking they had been given at the beginning of the year.

One anomaly shone out - the class graded as the fourth brightest had achieved the second highest marks. The teacher of set four was called in.

Her explanation was that she had thought she was teaching set two. "She went in with a set two script and the players played to it," he said.

Sir John's analogy for raising expectations was that of the experiment with fleas trapped in a jam jar. When a lid was kept on top of the jar, they could jump so far and no higher; by the time it was removed, they had learnt that they could not exceed that height, and tried to go no higher.

The same could be said of pupils if they were set low expectations, he said.

As a headteacher in his hometown of Kirkby, in the Liverpool area, he arrived at a secondary school which was nearly taken into "special measures". A year later, inspectors noted significant improvements - but said it still lacked the element of "awe and wonder" in the education it offered.

Sir John's response was to take his third-years to Rugby School, where fees were pound;25,000 a year. His pupils, at the end of the day, told him that the pupils at Rugby were just the same as them - except that they had money.

When he asked them what they were going to do about it, their response was:

"We have got to work harder."

On another occasion, he took fourth-years to New College at Oxford University, where they had dinner with the dons in all their finery, and the students in their tails. Halfway through dinner, one boy he had been trying unsuccessfully to interest in university, turned to him and said:

"You're right about university - I want this."

Now, seven-year-old primary pupils in Kirkby are invited to the oceanography department at Liverpool University to familiarise them with higher education.

Sir John said that schools faced four factors, over which they had no control, but which determined their success - poverty, family, neighbourhood and quality of education. "The last factor is 20 times more significant that any of the others," he said. He quoted statistics showing that "by age four, a professional's child will have had 50 million words spoken to it; a working class child 30 million; and a child of a family on benefit, 12 million".

Literacy, he told his audience, was the "key to the kingdom" and teachers also held the means to tackle the emotional deficit of some young people.

"By three years of age, the child of a professional family has had 700,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements; the welfare child will have received 60,000 encouragements and 120,000 discouragements," Sir John said.

He urged teachers not to reinforce pupils' perceptions of themselves as low-achieving or badly behaved, but to give them a different "script".

After shadowing a group of 11-14s in one school, he realised they were asking themselves not "what have I got next?", but "who have I got next?"

Teachers should therefore think about the teachers who had made a real difference to them - and try to emulate them. They should also remember that, as well as having the power to encourage or inspire young people, they could also have a discouraging impact.

So how moved were they?

* Paula Gander, art and design, starting her second year as a fully qualified teacher

"Ten out of 10. What I got from it was the need to focus back on making learning fun for the kids. You get caught up in attainment and getting them through the exams, but they do remember the fun times. On the motivational aspect, he reminded me how much you play a part in their lives."

* Chris Somerville, English, starting his second year as a fully qualified teacher

"The idea of being a weaver of magic really struck a chord and the impact you can have on children's lives, both positive and negative. We don't often think about the negative so a bit more awareness of that is good."

* Derek Easton, drama, in his seventh year at Larbert High

"Very inspirational - the fact that attitude is 80 per cent of success is so true. Even the 'energy sappers', if only for a short time, are going to feel positive after that. It will get some of the cynics thinking about their attitude to kids."

* John Martindale, faculty head of humanities (geography, history, religious and philosophical studies), in his eighth year at Larbert High "I was thinking about all the new teachers and probationers arriving in school and wishing I had had a start to my first school like that. There was a tremendous feeling of excitement."

* Chris McNally, English and principal teacher of pastoral care "Sometimes it is the first days back at school which are the days when we smile the least - but not today. When he talked about teachers engaging with pupils' interests, I think we do that. I would bring in a book if I thought a pupil would like it."

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