The road to raising attainment

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
Today sees the publication of two key reports. We look at the challenges ahead

Raising attainment - it's what schools set out to do every day and it's what governments want to achieve.

Increasingly, a nation's standing in the international Pisa league tables of reading, maths and science attainment among 15-year-olds influences the decisions of multi-national companies about where to site new ventures. And worryingly, Scotland has been treading water in recent Pisa measurements, overtaken by other countries, notably some from the Far East and Canada.

Today, the Scottish government will publish the report on raising attainment, prepared for education secretary Michael Russell by a group of five current or former headteachers that he handpicked for having raised attainment in their schools.

Almost in parallel, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) has been working on a report on the same subject, which is being launched simultaneously.

Both reports reach similar conclusions, with a broad acknowledgement of what works but less clarity on how to make it happen.

"Just do it," is the advice of Brian McAlinden, retired head of Castlemilk High in Glasgow and a member of Mr Russell's raising attainment group.

The five members - Brian McAlinden; Val Corry, head of Balfron High in Stirling; Anne Paterson, quality improvement manager (early years), Argyll and Bute; Lindsey Robertson, Castleview Primary, Edinburgh; and Arlene Black, Williamston Primary, West Lothian - spent their first meeting sharing what worked for them.

Five broad themes emerged: leadership; culture and ethos; learning and teaching; the development of professional capacity; and partnership and community.

Fundamental to all of these was the need for continuous self-evaluation, Mr McAlinden told TESS, echoing the message from HMIE's last two "state of the nation" style reports, Improving Scottish Education, 2002-05 and 2005- 08.

Mr McAlinden's recipe for success was to shift the mindset and level of expectation in a school serving an area of deprivation.

"All poverty is damaging but the most damaging poverty of all is the poverty of ambition and expectation," he said. He improved attendance and the quality of teaching and delivered better leaver destinations.

"We had a really relentless focus on learning and teaching to make it consistently good or very good. If it was already very good, it had to become excellent - if everyone just moved up one step, it got a lot better," he said.

To help them do that, he devoted a significant amount of money and time to high-quality continuing professional development (CPD) - delivered by an external provider focusing on formative assessment from 2003-06 - and encouraged teachers to look at one another's practice.

Last year, the headteacher group attended the Scottish Learning Festival and met Ben Levin (left), an academic and former deputy education minister from Ontario, who is credited with much of the transformational change that has happened in the province in recent years.

Professor Levin's relentless focus on literacy, improvements to daily teaching practice and raising of staff morale impressed them.

Mr McAlinden acknowledges that concerns about pension arrangements, tight budgets and the changes to teachers' terms and conditions proposed by the McCormac review are not likely to boost morale in Scotland. But he believes that Scottish teachers are a caring profession who have pupils' best interests at heart.

The group's remit was to advise the education secretary how to deliver "rich attainment" - not by teaching to the test and focusing on the number of exam passes.

Part of their advice is to invest even more in the early years. Both the attainment group and ADES were heavily influenced by the findings of the Growing Up in Scotland survey 2011, that children from some social backgrounds can be up to 18 months behind their peers in reading and problem-solving abilities by the time they start school at the age of five.

Anne Paterson, former head of Inveraray Primary in Argyll and Bute, quotes the EPPSE (Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education) research by the Institute of Education at the University of London, which showed that the attainment of 14-year-olds is linked to the quality of their pre- school education.

"It's what I have always known as a practitioner but the information around now is so powerful that it can't be ignored," she said.

Her message is blunt - that we need to work from early on with families on their parenting skills; we need a highly-skilled early-years workforce; and investment in early years must be universal, not just targeted at those in socially deprived areas.

"If we look at other countries, they invest much earlier and it's universal - not just focusing on vulnerable families. At any point we could all be vulnerable," she said.

She also wants to see a stronger focus on literacy and numeracy and clearer directions given at national level on how literacy should be developed at the early stages.

"It should not be a hit or miss as to whether a local authority has a literacy programme in place."

Craig Munro, head of education in Fife, chairs the ADES performance and improvement network. He has come to the same conclusion about the need to invest in early years - and more crucially, early intervention.

"We have got to walk through that door called home," he said.

It's a message we would not have heard from directors of education five years ago, he believes.

The ADES report analyses why, when we know what educational success looks like, it is not being replicated more consistently. It concludes that there is:

a lack of conviction that all children have the potential to achieve more, even in the face of interrupted learning and social disadvantage;

insufficient investment in the earliest years of a child's life;

insufficient consensus on "well-evidenced and well-researched leadership" that is capable of making change happen;

lack of consistency in implementing the most effective teaching practice in every classroom, school and authority;

weaknesses in some teachers' skills;

lack of clarity about what constitutes effective practice and lack of recognition of its impact in areas of disadvantage.

Mr Munro believes that part of the key to delivering higher attainment is the creation of "credible performance management systems" that draw on "rich and reliable" data. That translates into a move away from crude statistics on, for example, free school meals entitlement, and greater attention to data covering:


parents' - particularly mothers' - education;

prior attainment;

social background; and

comparisons with similar classes and schools.

Better interrogation of such information might show that some schools, currently seen as high performers, are in fact coasting, he suggests.

He also calls for stronger leadership across the board, and told TESS that he was impressed by the work of Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College of School Leadership in England, which has delivered impressive results by putting effective headteachers in charge of groups of schools.

The ADES report also echoes messages from Professor Ben Levin in Ontario - that any strategy must be based on strong evidence and research, but that schools need to use information from baseline and standardised assessments, supported by relevant contextual information.

Mr Russell may baulk at introducing national, standardised testing. The alternative could be for local authorities to collaborate more closely.

The more immediate challenge for Scotland is to implement the key messages from ADES and the headteacher group. Both emphasise the need for better networking.

The five headteachers selected by Mr Russell will deliver their views online via video clips on Education Scotland's website. Meanwhile, national and regional events are being lined up by ADES and the government.

The headteacher group may have completed its task of delivering advice to the education secretary, but Mr McAlinden insists its members are "like a dog with a bone" and will not let go.

"We need to get all these things to go viral - get them through the classroom door. This is still work in progress," he said.

Learn from Levin

The work of Ben Levin, former deputy education minister in Ontario and professor of education at the University of Toronto, inspired the ministerial working group on raising attainment and the ADES.

In 2003, Ontario had stagnant achievement in literacy and numeracy; a declining rate of graduations from its high schools; public conflict over education; growing enrolment in private schools; and low morale among teachers and education.

By 2009, literacy and numeracy achievement had improved by 13 percentage points; the number of low-performing schools had been cut by 75 per cent; its high school graduation rates had gone up from 68 per cent to 79 per cent - 20,000 more students per year; and the turnover of new teachers in the first four years had fallen from 32 per cent to 9 per cent.

Professor Levin sums it up with five clear messages:

1 have a clear strategy;

2 ground it in evidence;

3 focus on doing it;

4 get lots of feedback and adjust;

5 respect and work with partners.

"There are no silver bullets and no shortcuts - just steady, unrelenting, consistent effort," he says.

`You've got to have high expectations - they are not just here to mess around'

East Milton Primary, South Lanarkshire

If your image of a support assistant involves someone moving quietly around a handful of struggling children at the back of the class while the teacher gets on with the task in hand, East Milton Primary will make you think again.

Support assistants at the East Kilbride primary have their own "active learning rooms": cornucopias of colour, noise and activity where they work with large groups and every child visits at least once a week.

There is always a theme linking learning to the real world. When it changes, the rooms - one for P1-3, another for P4-7 - close for a week as staff prepare the transformation. Excitement ratchets up as passing pupils try to peek through the door.

Just now pupils are learning about holidays. There is a travel agent, a bureau de change, and a mum who works as cabin crew came in to field questions. Permanent features such as a water table are put to use: pupils learn to measure out the 50ml of liquid they would be allowed in hand luggage.

"It's more interesting work, you get a wider range of experience, and you've got a wee bit more responsibility," said one support assistant, Ann Linton.

But children are always aware that they are learning: the first things they see as they enter are racks of individual "learning logs" in A4 folders.

"You've got to have high expectations - they are not just coming down to mess around," said headteacher Agnes Ross.

The active learning rooms are emblematic of one reason why attainment at the South Lanarkshire primary, which has 230 pupils including nursery children, has been steadily improving since 2004-05: the school endeavours to make the most of each member of staff's talent.

Mrs Ross talks of "the joy of Curriculum for Excellence"; the school feels unshackled from edicts, freer to let staff experiment.

"We're really flexible and open to new ideas," said principal teacher Alison Gardner.

One of the most successful innovations assigned each of the 29 P7s to work with a younger pupil on reading for 15 minutes each morning of the school year: the younger pupils' self-esteem is boosted, while the P7s thrive on the sense of responsibility.

East Milton prides itself on an "all-inclusive ethos". There is an emphasis on getting children settled and happy first, in the belief that they will then want to do well - and doing well could mean a host of things.

"Achievement and attainment are intertwined," added Mrs Ross. "If the children feel they are achieving, if it's recognised and celebrated, there's a positive climate that makes them want to attain."

One of the clearest manifestations of pupil confidence comes at the school's regular assemblies, when even the youngest children think little of getting up to sing, dance or speak to the gathered parents. There is a common refrain in the audience: "I could never have done that."

`We are sending a message to the community that this is our standard'

Viewforth High, Kirkcaldy

Scottish education has long prided itself on resistance to crude exam league tables, but Kirkcaldy's Viewforth High has shown how more sophisticated use of statistics can drive a school forward.

Fife Council's work with the school - which draws pupils from some of the authority's more deprived communities - shows pupils are attaining consistently higher than was projected, based on their performance at primary school.

They have used Pips (Performance Indicators for Primary Schools) scores, which cast fresh light on a school where more than a third of pupils got five or more Credit passes at Standard grade last year. "Apple-and-pear" comparisons with schools in affluent suburbia would be unfair and demoralising, underlined head Adrian Watt.

"We're not data-driven, but we are data-aware," he said.

Council officials believe the attention given to individual pupils in the school, which has a roll of just under 400, is making a big difference.

The "daily dozen" is perhaps the most eye-catching innovation. Mr Watt sets aside an hour at 11am each day for five-minute slots with individual pupils; every pupil has three one-to-ones with the head over a year. In S4-6 the conversation focuses on studies, with targets set for the next meeting.

"It's the highlight of my day," says Mr Watt. "If there are things that are wrong, they will tell you."

Study support is strong, with all 37 teachers taking at least one lunchtime or after-school session every week. There is no compulsion to attend, but in the week before TESS's visit, 85 per cent of S5-6 had done so and 70 per cent of S4.

"The onus is on the youngster to come with the problem, rather than the teacher teaching extra content," explained Mr Watt, who stresses that much of what the school does was in place before his 2010 arrival.

Mr Watt and his deputes are often visible in the corridors and the head aims to visit every classroom twice a week. He also likes to be seen outside the school at the end of the day, and to attend community events.

"I have this view that the headteacher is a pillar in the local community," he said. If people in the community and in their homes are talking positively about the school, he reasons, pupils will more likely arrive in the morning with "positive vibes".

Staff want to "give the youngsters a school to be proud of", said Mr Watt. School concerts, for example, are formal affairs in which pupils will not just shamble onto stage. "You're giving the parents and pupils reason to think they've been part of an occasion," he added. "It builds up that sense of pride."

Similarly, the school is a stickler for traditional uniform. Blazers are heavily subsidised by the school and visiting P7s receive two shirts and a tie.

"We are sending a message into the community that this is our standard," said Mr Watt.

Viewforth "doesn't have all the answers", stressed Mr Watt. Change is brought about by something "more philosophical and deep-seated". He added: "It's about establishing a culture and doing everything well."

Original headline: Five headteachers, two reports, one plan: to raise attainment

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