On the right course to make a difference
There are shrieks of laughter as the first years race across the playground. It's raining, but the Northfield Academy pupils are oblivious to the chill factor, pretending to be squirrels collecting nuts for winter.
They are storing the nuts in their dens - a rainbow of hula-hoops laid out across the playground. "The nuts are different colours and they're all different numbers," a breathless 12-year-old Toni Cocker explains.
The game has an element of jeopardy, which raises the tension: "Once they get the nuts in the hoops, in the second round they have to protect them from being stolen," says physics teacher Alexis Dean, who organises the Aberdeen school's John Muir Award, as a cross-curricular environmental programme for first years.
This school is in a socially-deprived area of the city where 26 per cent of children have free school meals. "I did some work with Grounds for Learning on an in-service day where I learned about taking numeracy outdoors, and this is one of the activities," she says. Grounds for Learning is a charity which promotes outdoor learning and play to schools and nurseries.
Miss Dean is now able to deliver her own sessions on Taking Learning Outdoors to colleagues. It is just one of an impressive catalogue of continuing professional development (CPD) courses delivered by what the school describes as its "internal consultants" - teachers teaching each other about everything from dyspraxia to discipline.
In-house training became more of a necessity here after Aberdeen City Council faced financial crisis and had to identify savings of pound;24 million. With no budget for training, the school's depute head and CPD co-ordinator Michael Will extended its in-house programme, which has been shortlisted for the TES Schools Award for Outstanding Staff Training and Development.
More than 80 per cent of teachers surveyed say they are happy with their CPD opportunities. Attention has been dedicated to learning and teaching, leadership and school improvement, to get the best results for teachers and children cost-effectively.
Thirteen staff have become accredited trainers for new initiatives on restorative practices and critical skills, and an internal mentoring and coaching programme has been identified as best practice by HMIE and recognised by Investors in People.
The school developed its own mentoring course for staff, based on models from the University of Santa Cruz in California, US, and the University of Aberdeen. Here, 20 teachers have been awarded professional recognition as mentors by the General Teaching Council for Scotland.
The trigger for this programme was a lack of applicants for teaching vacancies which were filled by probationers between 2003 and 2007, according to the depute head. Over four years, there were 44 probationers, with 16 new teachers starting at the school one August. The figure has now declined, with just three probationers this year.
"Because we were getting such a huge number of probationers coming into school, we needed to make sure we were supporting them effectively," says Mr Will.
Now that there are fewer probationers to mentor, students on placement are allocated one. "There are nine arriving next week and they have all been assigned a mentor. Our mentors are allocated to a student or probationer from outwith their subject speciality, which fits with Curriculum for Excellence, developing links across the curriculum and encouraging collaborative working.
"The other reason is, I expect the principal teacher to make the assessment call on whether this person is making the relative standard or not. When the scheme started, mentors were making the call, or they were also your line managers, and doing that dual function wasn't working."
The school also decided to follow Assertive Discipline, the behaviour management programme developed by Lee and Marlene Canter in the US in the 1970s. Again, six teachers were trained and began training their peers. "It's too expensive to train everyone individually by sending them on courses. And if you have a piece-meal approach, some people apply it, some don't, and you have no consistency," says one of the trainers, Paul Rorie, PT humanities.
Aberdeen City Council is also reaping the benefits of Northfield Academy's expertise and two of the school's trainers are training probationers across the authority in Assertive Discipline.
Mr Will sees an improvement in behaviour in school. "In the last 24 months, the discipline record for stage 5 - the kind of things we would be considering for exclusion - has significantly reduced."
The school's HMIE report last year identified a weakness in the quality of attainment, which continues to be a focal point for improvement this year. Students are giving positive feedback on learning and teaching at pupil council meetings.
"A critical issue is that we focus on learning and teaching," says Michael Will. "We improve learning and teaching and we focus on discipline, we become better disciplinarians, but not better teachers."
He believes good teaching drives better discipline: "When teaching and learning improves, there's a direct correlation with the discipline or behaviour improving. In my vision and values for education and teaching, that's our core business, that's what we have to improve and everything else will follow."
Headteacher Sue Muncer agrees: "For pupils, my hope would be that this does improve the quality of learning and teaching they have in the classroom. It helps them have teachers who are more relaxed, more confident and in control, so relationships are better. At the end of the day, pupils will be able to achieve more because of the skilled teachers they are working with."