When taking a risk makes all the difference

26th September 2008 at 01:00
The chief inspector of schools has confirmed his intention that HMIE will in future look for better self-evaluation and engagement with the new curriculum. We report on a primary school that has been doing both

Gill Friel laughs as she suggests that three decades in school education, now drawing to a close in retirement and part-time teaching at Jordanhill, can be summed up in one stark headline: "Years of fear now over." But she is more than half-serious.

It's an astonishing remark from the headteacher of St Ninian's Primary in Stirling, whose recent inspection report contained eight very goods and six excellents - one for dramatic improvement in English language attainment from 48 per cent in 1999 to an anticipated 90 per cent in 2008, and two for school leadership.

It was a catalogue of commendation that led the local paper to describe St Ninian's as "one of the best schools in Scotland".

But Gill Friel's style of leadership, while officially excellent, is very different from the one that prevails in Scottish schools and authorities. It's a style that can readily be misunderstood, she believes. "Some people see it as weakness," she says. "We were worried when the inspectors were coming. We didn't know what they would make of us. What we've been doing here is so different. We weren't sure they'd have anything to compare us with."

A key point is that admission of specific weakness is not in itself a weakness, but a strength - and a sign of confidence in the management. "It's a positive thing when people are able to analyse themselves and their abilities. It's what making teachers professional is all about," she says.

"Teachers have to identify their own development needs and headteachers have to create conditions that make them feel safe to do so. Our teachers will now happily say `I need help with this' or `Is there anybody who can advise me on that?' It's a collegiate climate we created slowly, carefully and responsibly. If you try to do stuff like that quickly, you can create chaos."

Underpinning this commitment to collegiality and consensus as the most effective way to run a school, there is clearly no shortage of strongly- held opinions - persuasion is better than compulsion, for one, and there are always alternative ways of working, for another. But too much talk about ethos and philosophy can create a false impression of a school rapt in self-absorption - and St Ninian's is nothing like that. There isn't time.

Excessive preparations for the inspection, for instance, might have taken time out of learning and teaching that the school was not prepared to sacrifice.

"Elaine Wyllie, the new head, who was then depute, prepared us for the inspectors. She did the homework, studied past reports, talked to local headteachers who had been inspected.

"She highlighted how best to prepare without putting things on hold. If you're a dynamic school, you can't put everything on hold just for the inspectors."

One of the main points flagged up was that levels recorded for pupils needed to be reflected in the work in their jotters. "Inspectors found quite often that these did not match, Elaine told us."

But beyond this honest book-keeping, there was little attempt to make special preparations for the visit, says Mrs Friel. "There are all sorts of exciting things we do that we didn't get a chance to show them, because they were only here for a week. It's a short time to capture the flavour of a dynamic school. But no, that doesn't mean we wanted them to stay longer!"

In the event, and despite "piles of wonderful stuff the children had done" that never saw the light of day, the inspectors did grasp the essence of St Ninian's:

- "Teachers encouraged pupils to be creative and curious learners";

- "All staff had exceptionally good relationships with their pupils";

- "The high level of teamwork was evident throughout the school";

- "Very large numbers of parents . had commented very positively on their visits".

So what exactly does St Ninian's do to generate such high levels of satisfaction among parents, staff, schoolchildren - and now inspectors? Details of the answer would differ, depending on when it was asked, since new ideas and initiatives are constantly emerging.

But there is a bedrock of language and literacy learning, led by Mrs Friel (joint author of several books on the subject), and innovative whole- school approaches to environmental studies, piloted by former depute Mrs Wyllie.

There is also a familiarity with the frontiers of education, resulting from close links with Strathclyde University. "It's important for teachers to be aware of the latest educational research," says Mrs Friel. "But they usually don't have the time. A headteacher has to help them.

"We have leant heavily on two people at Strathclyde - Sue Ellis and Linda Keith. When we invite them to do in-service, we want the practical stuff. But we also want to know where the ideas are coming from, what the latest research tells us about learning.

"The lead inspector told me, when he was here, that the level of professional discussion he'd had with our teachers was very impressive. That's partly because they're very good teachers, but it's also because of their contact with the latest research."

A good example of this is literature circles - small, pupil-led events in which children discuss a book in depth. These had their origins in America and were researched and piloted in Scottish schools by Strathclyde University.

"Sue talked to us about literature circles when they were new in this country," says Mrs Friel. "We couldn't then put them in place across the school, because we needed lots of money for books.

"But principal teacher Sally Fraser was fired up and made it work in a limited way in her class. She got us all wanting to do it, because she made it sound so exciting. Then schools got thousands of pounds straight from the Scottish Government and, because we look at the research and try things out, we knew exactly what to spend it on.

"We were onto Amazon the same day to order the most fabulous children's books."

Through literacy initiatives such as this, St Ninian's pupils' attainment in reading has soared over the past nine years, say the inspectors.

The other foundation-stone of the school's creative structures takes the form of whole-school initiatives in what used to be environmental studies, and now comes under science, social studies and technologies. These initiatives had their origins in Mrs Wyllie's classrooms, but grew to encompass the whole of St Ninian's and beyond. The resources, known collectively as Joyning the Learning - the Magic Castle, the Very Important Bear, the Unsinkable Ship, Fairyland, and so on - are now engaging children and parents through the active involvement of "over 1,000 Scottish teachers".

At St Ninian's itself, the aim, say the inspectors, was to deliver "engaging, coherent and relevant" activities across the school. Pupils generate big questions, which become learning outcomes and are displayed in classrooms and shared with parents. They organise open-days with activities, workshops and guided tours.

Teachers embed active, collaborative and independent learning and prepare "high-quality, worksheet-free, core work across the curriculum". Nine hundred adults, say the inspectors, attended one showcase evening alone - at which "confident children basked in the glow of their success".

Creative ideas, innovative good practice and teacher professionalism all flourish when a headteacher cedes some control - in the same way that classroom learning blossoms when pupils are given responsibility for their learning, says Mrs Friel.

"Take forward planning. There's a culture that everyone in a school should use the same format, so the headteacher knows exactly what's going on. At St Ninian's, people are allowed to develop their own, but we also point them to formats they can use if they need to.

"It's how we do things in every aspect of teaching and learning. You can provide good lessons or point teachers to texts - in maths or comprehension, say. But if they want to develop their own, they are free to do so. The teacher then has individual responsibility for making sure it is done well.

"That's the scary part - all the time, and not just when the inspectors are coming. But it is also liberating."


The staff was apprehensive before the inspection, says Elaine Wyllie, St Ninian's new head. "We felt our whole approach was on the line. That's what scared me. We had such belief in what we'd been doing and how we'd been doing it. If the inspectors had been highly critical, I don't know how we would have dealt with it."

Balancing creativity and accountability is a problem in the classroom and across a school. Becoming a head, for instance, is not an obvious move for a creative teacher. "I thought long and hard about it," Mrs Wyllie says. "You can so quickly become an administrator. I'm still going to be a teacher, though I'll have less time in the classroom.

"Gill and I have worked closely over the years. I've seen how frazzled you can get, how difficult it is to keep learning and teaching at the heart of things. I have no illusions. What matters, though, is the experience children have in the classroom. That and their safety and happiness are what matter in any school."

The aspect of St Ninian's that really swung it with the inspectors, Mrs Wyllie believes, was the quality of self-evaluation among teachers and pupils. "We are always looking for something better. The inspectors saw the real deal in terms of teachers and pupils reflecting and learning from each other.

"The children could look them in the eye and say: `we are using critical skills'; `our projects are cross-curricular'; `we learn this way because .'. "they could talk the inspectors' language."

Mrs Wyllie's appointment ensures a constant supply of new ideas, as well as continuity with ways that have been shown to work. "There will be no sudden change," she says. "The teachers, the approaches, the belief in the new are here. The big planks are functional and imaginative writing, the reading circles, the Joyning the Learning initiative. There is a discernment in this school now. Teachers know what will work and when to take a risk. We are not waiting for things to be done to us. We have already done exciting, wonderful things. On the cusp of A Curriculum for Excellence, we know what we're doing. We know how to take it forward."

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