No resting on laurels in leafy suburb;Scottish management

5th June 1998 at 01:00
As this year's educational Ethos Awards are announced in Edinburgh today, Seonag MacKinnon reports on the winning schools

There are white bungalows with clematis growing up the walls, and cars with registration plates three quarters of the way through the alphabet. The news that a school in this leafy suburb of Cramond in Edinburgh has won Scotland's educational Ethos Award for 1998 may be greeted in certain quarters with some scepticism: "They would, wouldn't they?".

At a presentation ceremony in Edinburgh today, the engraved silver quaich and cheque for pound;2,000 will be handed over to Cramond Primary School by the headteacher of last year's winning school, Castlebrae in Craigmillar, a deprived area of Edinburgh where children can be third-generation illiterate.

"This is the second year that an Edinburgh school has won," says Professor Pamela Munn of Moray House. "But the schools are very different. Positive ethos is not just for deprived areas. It's something that all schools everywhere should be alert to." Moray House runs the award scheme, launched in 1997 to encourage schools to raise standards by examining their ethos or culture.

Cramond was the unanimous choice of the Scottish Schools Ethos Network panel, partly because of the sense of community and partly because it spelt out in detail areas it still has to tackle. "You don't do ethos and then it's finished," says Professor Munn. "This school was not resting on its laurels."

Judges liked the school's drive to improve self-esteem of pupils and teachers as an objective in its own right and as a strategy to improve children's attainment.

Entries for the fledgling award have doubled since the first year but still amount to just 19 out of Scotland's 3,000 schools. The panel makes its assessment from submitted reports often accompanied by videos. They expect to see numbers rise as the award becomes better known and word spreads that judges are not looking for a perfect school, but for one which is taking significant measures to improve itself.

Urging more schools to enter next year, Professor Munn says: "In Scotland we're very good at telling people when they are doing something wrong, but we've never been very good at telling them when they get it right. Here we're creating an opportunity to praise people for making an effort. And that creates an environment where they want to try even harder."

Bill Ball, Cramond's headteacher, says he was inspired to try even harder with his own school after a local authority review and headteacher appraisal hit him with the news that communication to staff spread over a main building and an annexe was not all it could be. Non-teaching staff in particular felt they were left on the margins. "It was a real eye-opener to me. Parents, pupils and teachers were happy with the school. But non-teaching staff felt there was a 'them and us' attitude," he says.

The drive to create a genuine school community took several forms. Support staff such as secretaries and janitors now meet the head once a fortnight. All 42 staff in the 12-class primary are invited to a meeting with him once a term. Most staff attend and say they welcome feeling part of the decision-making process and seeing how elements of the school fit together.

Many staff, including a half-day-a-week cello instructor and several of the 12 auxiliaries dealing with the large number of special needs children, attended a weekend course at an outdoor adventure centre.

At a formal conference, members of the school board and the PTA committee came together to hear outside speakers and have lunch.

Pupils also play a greater role in the school since the formation of a school council. Two representatives from each class attend a weekly meeting, where they can ask questions such as: "Why do we have to share text books?" "Why are the toilet door locks broken?" "How can we take better care of the crabs in the fish tank?" "Can we have a nine-hole golf course?" Many of the 340 children also play an active part in the monthly school newsletter, writing match reports and accounts of class topics, pyjama parties and plays.

Parents have been drawn into a closer relationship with the school through consultative workshops on information technology, reading, homework and sex education. Open days allow them to see what their children are doing in school and at the beginning of each year they can come to a presentation on what their children will learn that session.

Staff say bridges are also built by the willingness of staff to take parents' concerns seriously, even if they do not always agree. Parents were instrumental in the introduction of competitive races on sports day. The head was struck by their argument that, as things stood, children who had particular skills were deprived of the chance to shine and see their self-esteem rise.

Staff attendance at PTA events such as family quiz nights and ceilidhs creates links. Sports day is another occasion when the school community gels together, as 800 people stay on for a PTA barbecue and toddler races in a garden fete atmosphere.

Ball feels that the uniform of a maroon sweatshirt, swapped for a shirt and tie on formal occasions, is one more important factor which helps bind the school together into a community.

Mr Ball used to work in Livingston and Craigmillar. Now he is striving to improve Cramond, with its advantaged catchment. He accepts that he has far more time to think, organise and talk to children. But he still says: "One of the biggest challenges is to avoid being on the defensive, to admit without losing face that you may have been wrong on a particular issue. Once you've done it a couple of times, it is quite easy. Parents find it quite human."

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