Memories in the mists of transition

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Shortly after becoming headteacher of Bellarmine Secondary, prior to moving to our outstanding premises and balloting for a new name (the turnout for the election would shame our politicians), I had the pleasure of leading the school community in celebrations to mark 40 years of service to Pollok and its environs.

Six hundred people filled one of Glasgow's main hotels. Past pupils jetted in from around the globe; the foyer was packed with a variety of memorabilia accumulated from over 40 years and lots of misty eyes, memories that seemed to have grown fonder as the years slipped by, teachers and pupils whose foibles and idiosyncrasies had been transformed into the stuff of legend.

Next week I return to my old primary school, St Robert's, which I'm sure had the reputation in the 1950s of being one of the largest primaries in Europe. I never actually attended the main building, serving my seven years in outposts of empire (annexes, we called them) where we treated the visit of the headteacher as something akin to that of some mysterious potentate.

We scrubbed up, bowed and scraped, displayed well-rehearsed examples of learning. The visit completed, we returned to normality with well-loved teachers. Or am I becoming misty eyed?

Interestingly, as the St Paul's High cluster continues preparations for new community school status in 2004, my old primary is part of the cluster.

How times have changed. As a pupil in the 1950s, "transition" may have been a word on our weekly spelling list: traditionalists will claim it was conquered by the middle of P2. What transition was not was a process of moving as seamlessly as possible from one place of learning to the next.

In the maelstrom of change that has been education in the last half-century, surely one area of success is in transition. 5-14 and all that is implied by these age references often receives harsh criticism: been around too long, insufficiently resourced, schools adapting too slowly in implementation I Yet I see great strides being made as primary and secondary colleagues actively work together. I see real co-operation existing; trust established where, not that long ago, contact between the sectors was tokenistic.

The beneficiaries are the pupils. A much used term now is "stakeholders".

It makes me squirm but perhaps I am alone in feeling this discomfort.

Pupils, however, are stakeholders.

I have been speaking to our S1 boys and girls about transition. Speak to the experts, they know, so I chatted to pupils individually, not as stakeholders but as experts. They have just undergone the transition. They provide the expert analysis that researchers crave. Their views reinforce my optimism.

They loved their primaries but were ready to move. They talked enthusiastically about curricular work done in several subjects while in P7, but involving either secondary staff input or actual lessons in the secondary. Naturally there were worries about the move, mainly the size of a secondary school, making new friends and the work being harder. These aspects kept emerging, while issues such as bullying, generally perceived to be of high priority, did not feature even after prompting.

Key strengths the first years highlighted were the staff and their friendliness, the support given by older pupils, the quality of their surroundings and the range of subjects on their timetables.

The school's challenge is to trap this excitement and sustain it as a real force behind quality learning experiences.

I wrote in August of new school conduct procedures allied to a new system of pupil praise. New systems throw up unexpected outcomes. At St Paul's High, one such outcome is that the headteacher is gullible. You'd better believe it!

In launching our system, Gerry, the depute, explained the new praise stamps to colleagues. Each staff member's stamp is individually numbered. He threw away the remark "Of course, Rod is 007."

Time elapsed and our secretary presents me with my praise stamp: 026.

Consternation, petted lip. A quick reshuffle and 007 is on my desk. Ego satisfied. Staff eyes rolling, heads shaking.

The stamps are being used and well received and, as hoped, make pupils smile or even laugh.

St Robert's Primary in the 1950s, St Paul's High in the 21st century: places where pupils smile or laugh as part of the learning process? Now there is a reason to get misty eyed.

Rod O'Donnell is headteacher of St Paul's High, GlasgowIf you have any comments, e-mail scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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