Winter chills thaw as one primary basks in its own glow

15th January 2010 at 00:00
It has been snowing accolades at a small Moray school since the inspectors' report last month

Steady snowfall has covered the playground, and pupils at this Moray school are scurrying around. Even the tiniest seem to sense the snow can't last for ever, so they're determined to squeeze as much fun as possible out of every second of play.

Teachers are outside with them trying to keep a lid on the hysteria, adding finishing touches to snowmen and gathering up icy gloves abandoned in the snow.

Everyone here has cause for celebration. St Sylvester's Primary in Elgin was given a glowing report by school inspectors last month. Particular strengths were the quality of learning, high-achieving enthusiastic children, successful staff meeting children's needs, strong partnerships with parents and professionals and whole-staff involvement in leadership roles and improving the school.

Headteacher Christine Jackson was praised for her clear vision and leadership to improve children's learning experiences. She has taught here since the start of her career 13 years ago - staff say she's good fun and leads from the front.

Mrs Jackson (above) is delighted with the HMIE report. "It's a reflection of the hard work that the staff put in here, and also the children, parents and community. As a Catholic primary, we have very strong values; they underlie all the work we do and we have very good links with our local parish."

There are 184 pupils and 12 teaching staff who each take responsibilities across a range of areas. "It's a shared leadership and the coaching, which we introduced two or three years ago, has greatly helped and enhanced the capacity for leadership."

"We have a Teacher Learning Community, so two of our class teachers volunteered to take that on. Over the next year they are developing Assessment is for Learning. They lead staff in presenting their workshops and learning communities, so they present the latest thinking and ask the right questions which help staff reflect and evaluate the work they do in class."

They also organise peer evaluations and teachers go into each other's classes, observing strengths and identifying areas for development. The learning communities have focused on areas like emotional literacy and inclusive play, and more recently the assessments.

The improvement of staff self-evaluation through coaching was highlighted by inspectors as an example of good practice. The school was a pilot for Coaching for Change and Coaching for Leadership, which was then introduced for support staff and teachers.

"Staff can have privacy in a room for 20 or 30 minutes and discuss something professionally with a colleague," explains Mrs Jackson. "Hopefully, they come away with something to try and something to do better or differently."

She kicked off the sessions herself with a session in which principal teacher Mandy Feeley was her coach. "It has almost become embedded, everyday practice, where we look for solutions rather than allow a problem to overwhelm us," says Mrs Jackson. "It's about being given the chance to reflect and coming up with solutions themselves."

You get a sense of excitement, innovation and fun in this school, but there's a strong caring ethos too, particularly for more vulnerable youngsters and those who need additional support. Inspectors were impressed with that level of pastoral care - Mrs Feeley has a dedicated role as principal teacher of pastoral care to ensure all children are achieving and are happy at school.

The inspectors were also impressed by the way pupils led learning to develop partnership with parents. To help the parents get a grasp of what school is like for 21st-century children, they were invited to come back to school for lessons - from their own off-spring.

P7s led eight lessons across the curriculum, including a Victorian Classroom with an 11-year-old as the teacher, who shouted at them. The parents loved it.

"She put them in rows and she yelled at them. We had a dunce's corner, with a hat, and she marched up and down and made sure they addressed her as Ma'am. If they didn't, she made them stand up and reminded them about good manners," says Mrs Jackson.

The children even shared learning outcomes with the parents on the whiteboard, identifying successful criteria in a range of lessons from maths and PE to emotional literacy.

The inspectors also highlighted the outdoor play area developed to meet all pupils' needs. There has been a radical rethink of playtime by the professional learning community - to encourage inclusion and understanding between children of different ages, abilities and needs. Everyone had their say on how this should develop to allow opportunities for individuality, so children can dance to music outside, explore nature, or play games.

"At playtimes, children have an absolute ball," says classroom assistant Maggie MacVicar, as she supervises the snow scene. She points out brightly-coloured signs which identify specific areas for different activities. "If you want to play on Spacehoppers, you come on the field. If you want to use chalk, you go to that area. If you want to skip, there's an active area for that. But if you want to read a book quietly, there's a place for that too."

Staff are full of praise for their head. Mrs Feeley says: "Christine is very good at recognising people's strengths and abilities and encouraging them. Her leadership style is that she puts trust in her staff."

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