Star quality

25th January 2013 at 00:00
School visits by high-profile role models are having a dramatic impact on pupils' performance

A cynic might suggest that celebrity visits to schools deliver little more than a superficial sprinkling of glitter, destined to fade into a pleasant but inconsequential memory as soon as the real business of school resumes.

Not so, a new report suggests, and there are plenty of teachers and pupils around Scotland to back that finding up. Get the right people in, prepare them well, and the effect of bringing in high-profile role models could be dramatic - even life-changing.

TESS is the first publication to see a University of Edinburgh report into Champions in Schools, a programme that brings top athletes into schools to work with pupils over three one-hour sessions.

Pupils showed "a marked increase in self-determination, ambition, perseverance and effort" compared with non-participants, Dr Christine Nash's report found. They had more positive attitudes, more involvement in sport and physical activity, and better understanding of healthy lifestyles.

The programme, run by the Winning Scotland Foundation across 19 local authorities now but ultimately aiming to extend throughout Scotland, helped pupils to "make the link between effort, school and sport". As one said: "I never thought they had to set goals and work so hard. I've never really done that before. I've thought about what I would like to do but not how to do it."

Preparation by teachers is "crucial", the report states. Catriona Morrison, a duathlon world champion who works for Champions in Schools as a programme manager, says "the stuff in between" - interdisciplinary learning - is what makes it work.

Mark Beaumont, who famously broke the world record for cycling around the world, has worked with the programme for several years. One-off visits to schools by well-known figures tend to involve people talking mostly about themselves and will inspire only a few people, he says.

"That's not the point of Champions in Schools," he stresses. He typically works with a group of 25-30, his three visits each spaced six to eight weeks apart.

He works on goal-setting, whatever the goal - he stresses that his work is as relevant to the non-sporty pupils as the sports nuts - and on the importance of consistent effort and realistic targets.

Having visited schools many times, he has a finely tuned sense of how to approach teenagers who may be self-conscious and wary of peer pressure to fit in. He seeks to create an atmosphere where they feel comfortable discussing their dreams: "The worst thing you can do is tell them that they can't do things."

Whatever skill or interest they have, he wants to see every pupil push that to a new level by his third visit.

There are other ways to measure success when pupils meet famous guests. Independent research into Scottish Book Trust author events revealed that the "vast majority" of teachers and librarians saw reading confidence improve, with primary pupils enjoying the visits most. Crucial to success were preparation by the school - including clear briefs for the authors - and post-event work.

A report exploring the rationale for Speakers in Schools, a programme started by BBC business editor Robert Peston, went beyond classroom impact. Anthony Mann, research and policy director of charity the Education and Employers Taskforce, underlined the importance of pupils having contact with the outside world of work - those who have less of it at school are more likely to end up out of work or have lower salaries.

Maggie Lawson, head of Cumbernauld Primary in North Lanarkshire, has brought in many well-known visitors - Olympian, journalist, comedian and TV doctor, to mention a few. Her aim is to expose pupils to as many life experiences as possible. The impact is impossible to measure, she concedes, but she is certain that, in 20 or 30 years' time, former pupils will still be drawing on nuggets of wisdom from their starry visitors.

Mrs Lawson warned against second-guessing what, or who, will resonate most. Every two years, Cumbernauld Primary invites a collection of role models to an event that allows older pupils to quiz them in a format akin to speed-dating - pupils have a few minutes to interrogate one visitor before moving on to another. She was surprised on one occasion to see children flocking towards scientists as a football manager twiddled his thumbs.

Careers adviser Sue Burke contacted TESS to talk up high-profile visits after we asked readers to contribute their thoughts. Having worked in some of the poorest parts of Liverpool, she saw how pupils aspire to what they know - and some know only gang cultures and generations of unemployment.

Ayrshire youth worker and university student Ross Grant, who is profoundly deaf, also got in touch to highlight the dramatic impact that a relevant public figure can have.

"I see young people increasingly becoming disengaged with education and this would add some form of insight to many young people," he says, suggesting the perfect time would be about halfway through the school year "when things start to look bleak, particularly for the older ones with exams".

He added: "This is one of the things that I would have loved to have had during my education at school - someone to look up to, someone to tell me to believe in myself and say it is possible to achieve. Deaf students are already disengaged from school communities and struggle throughout school."

But high-profile visitors can do more than expand horizons; the sheer wattage of celebrity can power home a message that may otherwise fall limply to one side.

Just before Christmas, Sir Ian McKellen - or Gandalf in Peter Jackson's epic series of Lord of the Rings films - visited Ross High in Tranent, East Lothian, on behalf of the gay rights charity Stonewall, to help launch the school's equalities policy.

A good sport, he repeated one of Gandalf's most famous lines - "You shall not pass!" - as pupils filmed him on their phones. But the fame and gravitas of the Shakespearean actor also brought weight to what might otherwise have seemed dull and worthy.

"It got the kids to listen," said maths teacher Eddie White. "That is a major challenge. It got the topic to be cool and not just another boring lecture from a teacher."

Maggie Lawson recalls a similar effect when actress and comedian Karen Dunbar visited one of her previous schools, in a deprived area where staff had been working with pupils on table manners. Ms Dunbar's west of Scotland accent and humble upbringing - her mother was a cleaner - helped her to connect with the children, and when she told them that table manners were essential if attending a glitzy awards ceremony, their mealtime etiquette improved at a stroke. "I've been trying to get them to do that for ages!" a teacher told Mrs Lawson.

But throwing a celebrity in front of pupils without good reason is a mistake, TESS was told repeatedly. One rural primary head told of rejecting an offer of a free concert from a little-known band promoting their new single - that Westlife went on to become huge stars left him with no regret, as he had seen no educational purpose.

Teachers repeatedly underscored the importance of some sort of affinity with pupils. Champions in Schools endeavours to send athletes to schools near where they come from. Catriona Morrison visits West Lothian schools and makes sure to declare that she lives in Broxburn - often to the disbelief of pupils, for whom world-class athletes have an otherworldly quality. When a footballer asked tentatively if it was appropriate to talk about growing up in a council house, the resounding answer from the Winning Scotland Foundation team was "Yes!"

A long-running relationship reaps most benefit, believes Bob Foley, head of PE at Newbattle Community High in Midlothian. Gymnast Steve Frew, who won a gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, has worked with the school for four years - he visits two to four times a year - after being put in touch through the Sky Sports Living for Sport programme.

"Steve is like a colleague," Mr Foley said. "He feels comfortable in our department, the kids feel comfortable with Steve, he delivers his message with no first-time nerves and can cut to the chase without long preambles. It is a given with pupils that he is a talented, successful athlete, and when he talks, they listen."

Several people stressed that famous visitors should reflect a school's values - but one head showed they can even help establish those values. Neil Fachie, who won cycling gold and silver medals at last year's Paralympics, visited his old school, Aberdeen's Oldmachar Academy, as it prepared to celebrate its 30th birthday.

"We haven't had a lot of time to develop great traditions," said head Derek Brown. "The community is still coming together. Part of the job is to connect the community up and let people see what education can do for you."

Mr Fachie embodied the resilience espoused at Oldmachar - having not let a visual impairment get in the way of success - and was one of the first famous former pupils to return to the relatively young school. Pupils and parents had shaped the school's ethos and values; Mr Fachie brought them to life.

"It helps you to remind people about what you're trying to accomplish and what you want school to be for, and how you want them to treat each other," Mr Brown said.

Thoughts of how to mesh with a school's curriculum or philosophy are not what drove Robert Peston to set up Speakers for Schools, whose lengthy list of speakers includes Prime Minister David Cameron.

"Fundamental to what we do is levelling the playing field with fee-paying schools," he told TESS. Go to the Eton website, he said, and see the long list of visiting movers and shakers - but his old school (a "bog-standard comprehensive") in London did not get a single distinguished speaker in his entire time there.

There are longer-term spin-offs for some schools, but primarily Mr Peston wants to pull these people in to impart valuable knowledge about how they got where they are. Just getting such speakers into schools sends an important message to pupils: "They matter."

The Winning Scotland Foundation, funded by the Scottish government and Quality Meat Scotland, acknowledges the difficulty in gauging the impact of high-profile role models, and intends to carry out a longitudinal study. Whatever level of preparation there is, such visits demand that staff make a leap of faith.

Oldmachar head Derek Brown says you can never be sure whether a visitor will be in tune with the school and able to hold pupils' attention until he or she starts talking. But he speaks for many on why the risk is worth it: "You just never know what a young person is going to take inspiration from."





- 94.7 per cent of pupils participating in Champions in Schools felt they learned to appreciate that everyone has different strengths.

- 91.6 per cent learned that top athletes faced challenges just like them.

- 90.7 per cent appreciated the importance of effort.

- Significant difference between Champions in Schools group and control group in "intrinsic motivation", ambition, perseverance and effort.

- Little difference in ability to set goals between Champions in Schools group and control group.

- Champions in Schools group had more positive attitudes, more involvement in sport and physical activity and better understanding of a healthy lifestyle and diet.

- Some organisational issues, such as an athlete being less appreciated in a school where an Active Schools coordinator was based elsewhere, making communication difficult.

- Considerable media coverage organised by local authority at one case- study school caused timings to be "significantly disrupted".

Findings based on information gathered from several sources, including 411 pupils (mean age 13.7) from 14 schools, and 27 teachers or Active Schools coordinators from 17 schools


The well-known figure from the world of sport got up to speak. Almost immediately, things fell flat. The sarky nonchalance that played so well on TV and radio left pupils cold - and the staff and parents at the primary school weren't too impressed either.

That was one example from a teacher of the inherent risk of inviting a public figure into a school. The Scottish Book Trust report on author events recognises, too, that some writers struggle to engage a room of fidgety pupils. Meanwhile, the Champions in Schools report shows how the naivety of athletes can hamper their work, as in one case involving S1-2 pupils. "I would never imagine that kids that age could not run 200 metres," said the disbelieving champion.

Bob Foley, head of PE at Midlothian's Newbattle Community High, favours long-term relationships with sports stars. Parachuting in a well-known athlete could work to a degree, but "it's up to the PE staff to make the visit relevant and valid, not to sit back and assume pupils will be in awe".

The Champions in Schools report cites previous research showing the importance of careful checks on potential role models' backgrounds, as "media intrusion into the lives of celebrity athletes reveals drug and alcohol abuse, wife and girlfriend beatings, extra-marital affairs and poor sportsmanship on pitch".

Derek Brown, head of Oldmachar Academy, is wary of people with a commercial agenda and "hard-bitten" business leaders, whose success may be built on a ruthlessness out of tune with school mantras about teamwork.

A little fine-tuning is sometimes required even when a speaker's message could scarcely be more laudable. Mr Brown worked at Jordanhill School in Glasgow when Clare Bertschinger - the nurse whose work in Ethiopia led to Michael Buerk's famous BBC report which, in turn, inspired Band Aid - spoke to pupils. She said people should not rely on politicians to change the world, that it was up to individuals, just as a tiny creature like a mosquito could wreak havoc. Mr Brown considered that a little out of step with a collective ethos more typical in Scotland; midges made for a better metaphor.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, believes visits from well-known people work well most of the time, but that the "grossly inflated salaries" of certain figures raise unrealistic expectations of young people. It is a view shared by ElfiPallis, an author who specialises in advising young people on how to improve their chances of getting into Oxbridge.

"High-profile role models can be sources of careers information, but unless picked carefully they can also engender heart-breakingly unrealistic expectations," she says.

She believes the most useful role models are often "mid-profile" ones: "Disadvantaged students given the chance to meet a rising civil servant were surprised to learn that someone not yet 30 was earning about pound;50,000 a year - a huge sum in their eyes - and also had a varied, interesting working day."

A cursory view of actor Greg McHugh's CV might make a school think twice about whether to ask him in as a speaker. His best-known roles are in TV comedies Gary: Tank Commander (as a buffoonish soldier) and Fresh Meat (as a socially inept student with odd mannerisms).

But Mr McHugh's keynote address at last October's awards ceremony at St Thomas of Aquin's High in Edinburgh showed the rewards that can be reaped by taking a chance with a public figure.

"His address was the best I have witnessed in my six years at the school," recalls PE teacher Kevin Brown. "It would have been easy for him to slip into character and do a comedy routine, but instead he talked openly about his time at St Thomas's. He spoke about the feeling of community and how he felt he was encouraged to achieve."

The message was clear: pupils learned they could become "extraordinary through identifying something they loved doing and applying themselves to this".

Original headline: You shall pass: curtain up on visits from the stars


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