Learning valuable lessons from each other

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Us headies don't get out enough, which was why I found myself in the "Blue Toon" recently.

Oban High was featured in a TES Scotland article on assertive discipline last session and we have since had several visits from schools who were interested in what we are doing.

When we were invited by George Milne, headteacher of Peterhead Academy, for a return visit, I decided to take up the offer (tagged on to a weekend visit to see my children at Aberdeen University) and it was one of the best professional development experiences I have had in a while. (Does it count towards my CPD tally?) What always surprises me when I visit other schools (I try to do this as often as I can, especially schools in other authorities), is the extent to which we are very much alike, yet so different. It is music to my ears when I hear that another school is having the same problems as we are - we are not alone - and it is so interesting to hear their differing solutions.

For example, we have moved to offering fully discrete sciences and our biology department picks up the largest numbers, particularly of the lower ability pupils. We do Standard grade biology with most of them, while the remainder do Intermediate 1 or Access 3.

Since we made the change, however, we have struggled to make the grade with our lower ability students. They struggle with the depth and volume of the knowledge and understanding element of Standard grade.

A chat with Ian Alexander, Peterhead Academy's principal teacher of biology, revealed that they had had a similar problem and solved it by stripping out all but the fundamentals in their resource materials and concentrating on the knowledge and understanding element, with problem-solving mainly covered by homework. The strategy has been successful across all ability levels.

The technical department at Peterhead Academy, headed by Keith Miller, is an information technology wonderland. A highly creative use of space is demonstrated, with every teaching area equipped with an interactive whiteboard and ceiling-mounted projector, as well as banks of computers for graphic communications. Some of this equipment will be found, I am sure, in most school technical departments across Scotland, but what singles this one out is how it is being used.

Every part of every technical course is on the school intranet and accessible to pupils and staff. This includes homework and revision work and hyperlinks to excellent websites, for pupils' revision and for the staff, where quality teaching materials are available.

All the whiteboards are in use almost constantly and in one lesson we observed, images of a drawing at various stages were being shown on a time-lapse system (supporting pupils at different stages of the drawing).

If I needed any more convincing about the potential power of information technology in teaching and learning, then this was it.

This is a big, busy department, yet every pupil there at the time of our visit was focused and interested (and the basic craft skills are not neglected).

We could not have visited Peterhead Academy without seeing its impressive pupil performance monitoring system, which I understand was the inspiration for a commercial system now being marketed to schools. The system does all that a secondary school would want it to, for guidance and senior management team monitoring of pupil performance, individually and across year groups, to monitoring and reporting at individual department and teacher levels.

Finally, on our a visit to the behaviour support base, we got some great ideas from Morag Bryce, the principal teacher for social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, and her team.

So often as headteachers, we get bogged down in the day-to-day management of our schools and dispirited by the volume of paperwork. Yet, we need to get get out of our schools to find out what is going on elsewhere. We gained a great deal from our visit to Peterhead Academy. Our thanks to Mr Milne and his senior management team.

Linda Kirkwood is headteacher at Oban HighIf you have any comments, e-mail scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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