Special service in fifth class
Liz Devine's livewire presence is responsible for a lot of smiling faces in S2 at Milne's High in Fochabers, Moray. And it's not down to the fact that the petite principal teacher in learning support dares to wear pink pointy shoes to school, although they are incongruous alongside the dark, chunky footwear favoured by her pupils.
It's more that her influence as manager of a pioneering project for raising attainment in S1 and S2, has helped make their early experience of the small secondary school a happy one.
Ms Devine is pleased to share both her good and not-so-good experiences with anyone who cares to ask and she talked at the Ethos Network conference earlier this year about her work at Milne's High.
"Two years ago we had the opportunity to take four classes into S1," she says. "There was an issue that the learning support available might be spread too thinly. So we identified a group of 18 youngsters who were vulnerable, in that they had a variety of learning and behavioural difficulties, and decided to focus our support on that group as a fifth class. Our aim was to raise their attainment through raising their self-esteem and self-concept."
From that early decision grew an ambitious strategy, now hailed as a model by the Moray education authority, which has featured it in its new best practice Inclusion File.
The crucial first step was to consult with all the staff, the youngsters and their parents. Ms Devine and her learning support colleagues sold the concept on the basis that the project would provide an exciting opportunity for the vulnerable pupils to overcome difficulties they had experienced in primary school, shrug off their "I can't" attitude and learn to believe in their own ability.
There were two challenges. One was having to tell staff of the other four classes in the year group that all learning support would be focused on one class, which was something they accepted with good grace. The other was to prevent the class from being seen as a ghetto group. As it turned out, it wasn't a problem, mainly because the other pupils didn't realise the extent of the support provided.
With the senior management team's full support, a programme of activities was launched. This began with learning support teachers from Milne's High teaching in its three associated primary schools, as opposed to simply visiting, so that they were very familiar with all the P7 pupils before they transferred to the secondary school.
Working in partnership with the primary teachers, parents and outside agencies, such as the social work department and Moray Youth Action, the staff gathered a wealth of personal and social information about the vulnerable pupils and shared it with their Milne's High colleagues during a two-month preparation period prior to the new intake.
A classroom behaviour plan was drawn up and all staff agreed to reinforce the five guidelines of be safe, listen, be considerate and respectful, come prepared and do what is asked at the first time of asking.
Throughout the year, the fifth class was taught by teams of two teachers, one focusing on the subject, the other on social skills and other forms of learning support.
"Societal changes have meant many children lack the social skills expected by their teachers and this can lead to misunderstandings and confrontations," explains Ms Devine.
"Scaffolding", that is teaching within the children's comfort zone, was used initially to build confidence until they were ready to tackle new ground. Subject staff were also encouraged to break from tradition and try different methods of teaching the curriculum to meet the youngsters'
Behavioural issues, such as bullying, were eagerly addressed by the whole class. "Ask children to solve their own problems and they're far more creative than adults are," says Ms Devine.
All this, together with a consistently positive and enthusiastic approach from all the staff, was rewarded by all the pupils achieving accelerated learning, which delighted everyone and swept the class forward into S2 on a wave of increased self-esteem and higher expectations of themselves.
"All these pupils are now going on to do the subjects they want to in S3 and S4," says Ms Devine, who has high expectations that the project will continue beyond its two-year pilot.
"We've learned many lessons, which we've been applying to this year's first year class.
"We're thrilled with our success so far, which is mainly down to a combination of commitment, consistency, planning, communication and relationships.
"It's working and it's lovely."