NHS offers new prescription for struggling pupils

19th September 2014 at 01:00
Method that helps cut mortality inspires teaching in 100 schools

A hundred schools across Scotland are attempting to drive up educational attainment by adapting an approach first used by the NHS to control infections.

The scheme, Raising Attainment for All, involves identifying a very small group of pupils - even a single person - and helping them to improve at something. Once it becomes clear which techniques are working, these are rolled out to ever larger groups until, eventually, the whole school benefits.

The approach has been used by the NHS and appears to have lasting benefits. According to Jason Leitch, clinical director of the quality unit in the Scottish government's health and social care directorates, results have included a 25 per cent reduction in surgical mortality, a 14.4 per cent reduction in overall acute hospital mortality and "massive" reductions in healthcare-associated infections.

Mr Leitch said he was confident that schools would embrace the technique. "Engagement with pupils and teachers has been very encouraging and they have measured real, tangible improvements," he added.

The educational programme was introduced in six pilot schools only last October and education secretary Michael Russell told TESS that enormous progress had been made in a very short time. "I think this is a step-change in how we get results in Scotland," he said. "The intensive use of data to guide what are comparatively small changes produces big results."

One of the six pioneers was North Lanarkshire's Bellshill Academy. It wanted to help pupils from deprived backgrounds to gain one Higher, an achievement that some students might otherwise never have contemplated.

The school began with a single pupil, then a group of five, growing to 26. This year, parts of the approach will be used with all 300 of the institution's S4-6 students.

"The beauty of it is the simplicity," said headteacher Ann Munro. She described the method as "embarrassingly" straightforward, adding that other schools were doing "much, much more sophisticated things", and said that it had energised staff without demanding extra work of them.

Bellshill's approach was tripartite: it used data in a more focused way, ran 20-minute weekly mentoring sessions and built closer relationships with parents, which Ms Munro stressed was "absolutely paramount". "Parents will say, `I'm not able to help them with their calculus or close-reading, but I can ask them how they're getting on, how their homework has been.' It's just about starting conversations," she said.

Ms Munro added that getting involved in the pilot had helped some parents to see that simple changes could have big results. One father created a study area for his daughter by clearing a bedroom and putting a table in it. A mother who worked as a childminder started sending her daughter to study in the quieter setting of her grandmother's home.

Most of the group of 26 taking part in the pilot gained the Higher they had been seeking, but Ms Munro stressed that this was a relatively modest target and it was too early to declare the project a success.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said the overall impact would not be known for some time. Schools served their pupils best where they did not adopt "one size fits all" approaches, he said, and the programme appeared to move away from that.

"What works for one child doesn't necessarily work for another child - good teachers know that," Mr Cunningham said. "There is no silver bullet that works all the time."

A spokesman for the EIS said the teaching union was "generally supportive" of the programme but added that funding cuts meant it was "likely to have a limited impact".

John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' body ADES, said that in the right context the programme "gives a good methodology that engages staff".

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