Similar schools urged to learn lessons from each other

1st October 2010 at 01:00
Management teams should form `families of schools' to share best practice

A "ground-breaking" conference could provide the template for school management teams who wish to explore new ideas while faced with the pressures of staffing cuts.

Organisers of the conference on comparator schools were praised by HMIE and the Scottish Government, among others, for bringing together similar schools from across the country to learn about practice in each other's places of work.

It was the type of "dynamic event" that many had hoped for when comparator schools and benchmarking emerged as concepts in the 1990s, but which had not transpired, said Peter Whitehouse, the Government's head of analytical services unit (schools).

In his keynote speech, senior chief inspector Bill Maxwell underlined the importance of "professional learning communities". He described this week's event as "a really interesting approach" that could "add a lot of value", by pulling together a "family of schools" rather than sticking within local authority boundaries or one's own school.

HMIE is responsible for statistical analysis that holds up a secondary school's performance against 20 comparator schools with apparently similar intake characteristics (using, for example, the number of pupils entitled to free meals).

The idea of bringing comparator schools together came from Jon Reid, headteacher of Larbert High near Falkirk, as a potential way of driving up the school's performance.

"We so often compare ourselves to schools in our own authority that we sometimes lose sight of our comparators," he said. Sharing ideas more often among comparator schools would make it easier for them to put in place interventions before problems occurred, rather than holding "inquisitions" afterwards, he explained.

The event in Livingston brought together senior management and principal teachers from 21 schools across 11 local authorities. Mr Reid hopes schools who have identified common interests will arrange smaller meetings, and that the entire group will meet again for annual conferences.

Abi Adam, principal curriculum teacher at Broxburn Academy in West Lothian, believes the ability to step back and look at the bigger picture through such an event will become more important as the number of staff in schools is cut. Even in two short workshops, she said, the ability to compare several approaches in a single room had started to shape new thinking.

One of the most talked-about ideas came from Greenfaulds Academy in Cumbernauld. Headteacher John May explained that pupils were being sent home with succinct monthly reports for parents, which was helping establish early in the school year whether they were at the appropriate exam level - rather than waiting until prelims several months later.

The advantages of long blocks of time for single subjects, perhaps as much as three hours, were also discussed, with Larbert High considering such a move next year. Mr Reid said it was feasible for a mediocre lesson to be strung out over a 50-minute period - but longer chunks of time demanded excellent planning.

Mary Rankine, West Lothian Council head of education (quality assurance), welcomed delegates to the event and described it as "ground-breaking".

But there was a note of caution struck by one workshop facilitator: James Cameron, headteacher of St Margaret's Academy in Livingston, said there must be comparator groups where similarities between schools were not as clear, perhaps in rural areas.

Henry Hepburn

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