Iain White and Jackie Purdie find that free food and a prize draw increase exam attendances significantly
It was a senior management team meeting much like any other. The agenda was lengthy, the wit and banter were flowing and we were facing the challenge of pupil underachievement. In particular, the meeting was focusing on the fact that only 44 per cent of our Secondary 4 candidates had come in for all of their exams at prelim time. By any criteria which might be applied, the school had scope for improvement.
The team was considering the Standard grade finals and how we might best maximise the potential of individual pupils and improve the school's performance.
Sometimes, the simplest observations are the ones which have the greatest effect. Our depute head observed that if we simply got the pupils to turn up to sit the exams, improvement in results was bound to follow. Very quickly the management team's creativity was stimulated and ideas came in a cascade. Why don't we give the candidates their breakfast? Rolls with a prize-ticket in them along with the bacon. Pupils who came in for all their exams could have their names entered in a prize draw.
In this way PEPPs, or pre-exam play pieces were created. The minutes from the meeting were written in such a way that while PEPPs were mentioned, no description of what they were was given. We all agreed that we must heighten the suspense by disclosing to no one what PEPPs stood for while at the same time whetting the appetite and causing a degree of frustration. A phased launch was the answer. The poster campaign began with the message "PEPPs are coming". After a few days we changed the posters to "PEPPs are coming for Fourth Year". As the exams themselves approached we added the date of commencement.
A colleague possessing wit and a sense of the theatrical used the school Tannoy system to publicise PEPPs without saying what they actually were. PEPPs became a major talking point in the school. Staff and pupils alike were demanding an answer and being given none. Frustration with the senior management team took on a new meaning. Finally, all was revealed as pupils assembled for their final pep talk.
On the morning of the Standard grades and Highers, the school dining hall was open and candidates could have a cuppa and a filled roll - free. The canteen area also provided an opportunity for them to sit quietly and compose themselves before the exam started.
A personal stereo was bought as the prize. Candidates who attended all of their external exams were eligible for the draw. We were grateful to receive sponsorship for our efforts from Catering Direct, Govan Initiative and ScotRail. Would it work? Time alone would give us the answer to that question - but no matter what the outcome, a great deal of fun had been had.
On analysing the outcome, it was found that we had an increase of 20 per cent in the number of candidates who sat all their external exams compared to 1995, and 24 per cent compared to the prelims. In every category, attainment, as indicated by raw exam results, had risen. Most spectacularly, the number of candidates gaining five or more S grades at levels 1-4 increased by 10 per cent.
We do not claim that what we saw was a case of direct cause and effect, but we would like to think that the fun strategy with a serious undertone had some influence. Certainly we gave the school something to talk about. The personal stereo prize draw was well received. Attainment did improve. However, we still have a long way to go to achieve our 100 per cent target for exam attendance. PEPPs II this session? Why not?
Iain White is head and Jackie Purdie assistant head of Govan High School