The work, the ethos and the pay-off;Exam results

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Inverness Royal Academy, Highland

Schools which made particular progress in this year's exams used various tactics to improve, including results analysis, library study evenings, primary-secondary liaison, peer tutoring, attendance initiatives, attainment co-ordinators, starting Higher grade work sooner, increasing the pace of learning, more sport - and even taxiing pupils to exams. Mostly it took sheer hard graft. Raymond Ross reports

Headteacher John Considine says:

"We've had a big improvement in Higher results, moving from 62 band As in 1994 to 200 in 1999. We also targeted Foundation passes in Standard grade, reducing them by half, moving more pupils up to a grade 5.

"With regard to Highers, we began to pull down material from Highers into Standard grade classes, for example, grammar in modern languages. We have also introduced the RPR (Required Personal Reading) from Higher English, albeit at a simpler level, in S1 and S2.

"We have study skills classes in S3 and S5, and a regime of effective and regular quality homework is begun in S1.

"We have the software to give us exam results in sophisticated graph form, in detail, which we can compare with any one of 10 other schools in Highland, to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses.

"Pupils here expect to work hard. We have lunchtime and after-school classes, particularly in English and maths, pinpointed on specific topics, and I believe they've had a significant impact.

"Staff morale is high because people feel we do a good job."

Paisley Grammar, Renfrewshire

Headteacher John Pears says:

"A to C passes at Higher grade have gone up 15 per cent against national comparative factors. The real nub of the matter is a lot of hard work by staff and pupils, coupled with a good year group.

"Before the session we analyse Standard grade results and use them sensibly. You don't use them to beat staff over the head.

"Each department addresses its own strengths and weaknesses and we decide what strategies to develop to consolidate strengths and improve weaknesses. The management team takes an enabling role in all of this, a supportive role. It's about realising expectations through support. We have a pupil review process, interviews with pupils and supported study from S2 to S4.

"We also bring in around 20 higher and further education institutions for a careers evening, which parents can come to. We follow that with advice evenings and then set up pupil interviews with guidance and careers staff at the school.

"All of this helps with motivation, giving pupils and parents a sense of informed ownership. Our aim is to achieve all the pupils' potential. But the bottom line at curriculum level is hard work."

Stromness Academy, Orkney

Headteacher David Sillar says:

"This year 54 per cent of pupils got three or more Highers, 18 per cent up on the previous year.

"Attainment is the school's top priority and pupil and teacher expectations are quite high. We deploy guidance and learning support staff heavily for underachieving pupils, using learning support across a broad band of pupils. Guidance is proactive in identifying underachievers and a lot of time is spent with them.

"We are a small school (450 pupils), so we don't have much setting or streaming and we don't make early decisions about pupils' abilities. The door is left open. We try to avoid dumbing down pupils or letting the pupils dumb themselves down. I think our success is in what we don't do, as much as what we do do.

"We don't allow much interruption to classroom teaching. That's what improves attainment, rather than educational navel gazing or allowing yourself to be distracted by performance indicators.

"We also have very little staff turnover - that continuity is very important - and we are well resourced. We open the library for study evenings and are now looking at homework clubs.

Torry AcAdemy, Aberdeen

Headteacher Bob Skene says:

"Our 1996-98 average for five-plus Standard grades was 9 per cent at levels 1 and 2. In 1999 it rose to 17 per cent. Standard grade at 1 to 4 passes rose from 43 per cent in 1995-97 to 62 per cent in 1999. Three-plus Higher grades at A to C rose from 4 per cent (1995-97) to 8 per cent in 1999.

"You have to bear in mind that our S4S5 stay-on rate after Christmas is 33 per cent, as against a national average of 64 per cent. There is a fair degree of social deprivation in Torry, but it's a lively community with a strong identity and parents are very supportive of the school, which helps enormously. But peer and family pressure to leave school to earn money is strong. Most senior pupils have night or weekend jobs, adding pressure.

"We have concentrated a lot on class teaching and we do a lot of work on raising self-esteem, but the bottom line for our relative success has been sheer bloody hard work by all the staff.

"We had a programme of additional revision during lunch breaks and after school in the run-up to the exams last year and we also have senior pupils peer tutoring the younger ones. I believe that helps the seniors' motivation and sense of self-worth.

"We try to get the pupils as involved as we can in their own learning. In conjunction with staff, they set realistic and attainable targets for themselves.

"We have to counter the 'can't do' syndrome in our area and a young committed staff helps because pupils relate to them."

Kilwinning Academy, North Ayrshire

Headteacher Billy Ballantyne says:

"This year, 9 per cent of pupils got five or more Highers against a previous average of 6 per cent, while 21 per cent got three or more against a previous average of 15 per cent. Standard grade Credits rose from 30 per cent to 32 per cent, General passes from 70 per cent to 74 per cent and Foundation from 91 to 93 per cent.

"Over the past two years we have developed sophisticated results analysis, looking at strengths and weaknesses in detail, and we have a staff that are willing to be self-critical.

"This has led to a growing confidence in target-setting. We aim for a realistic assessment of what individual pupils are capable of attaining early in S4 and we challenge the youngster to raise achievement, working through guidance and parents as well as subject teachers. We hold after-school classes which pupils are encouraged to opt into to help them in areas identified as weak. We have an initiative which encourages pupils to attend. You cannot achieve without good attendance. We have even taxied pupils in for exams."

Earlston High School, Borders

Headteacher Norman Roxburgh says:

"Our 1997 figures for Standard grade showed 44 per cent Credits. This jumped to 55 per cent in 1998 and we maintained a 51 per cent average this year.

"There are so many factors it's difficult to pinpoint particular reasons for success. If you don't acknowledge work done in primaries, 5 to 14 and primary-secondary liaison as important, then we've all been wasting our time.

"To our advantage we have a rising school roll, from around 580 10 years ago to 755 now. This has brought new staff and extra resources, so that in times of cuts we maybe didn't notice them so much. Nearly all our departments have grown and 96 per cent of our pupils get their choice of Highers.

"We began study skills sessions here three years ago, before target setting came in, and the general ethos is that classroom teaching is central and should suffer minimum disruption.

"We have our own school booklet, How to Study and Prepare for Exams, each department prepares their own revision sheets and we recycle past papers among pupils.

"We also have regular parents' nights and get them involved as much as possible. This is especially important in a school with as wide a catchment area as ours.

Craigie High School, Dundee

Headteacher David May says:

"Dundee schools have all appointed a co-ordinator on attainment, seconded part-time from school staff, which has given us time and resources. The co-ordinator helps develop a whole school strategy, with ideas coming mainly from staff, who identify pupils needing to do better.

"We track pupil progress and identify those needing support early in S4, before the November parents' night where it can be discussed. This leads to pupils at study support classes at night.

"We also have a residential revision week for 30 Standard grade pupils, identified as the ones who would benefit most, at St Andrew's University during the last week of the Easter term. One spin-off from this is that most of this group will not have been in a university environment before and it helps affect attitudes.

"Staff have undergone training in study skills to teach children how to study in the context of individual subjects, and twilight in-service courses on things like how students learn are having an impact on teaching, where a mix of approaches is used to make pupils learn more effectively."

Marr College, South Ayrshire

Headteacher George Bone says:

"We had a 13 per cent target for five-plus Highers but got 17 per cent. It was a good year group but attainment has been top of our agenda for a few years now. It's about overall achievement and a strong learning environment, not just academic attainment.

"We began with attendance which was low for a catchment area like ours. Good attainment depends on good attendance. We developed an appropriate study skills programme. Study support money enabled us to hold an Easter revision school for Higher candidates. More than 100 pupils attended. Support for learning in the school gives help across the board. Able pupils can underachieve as much as the less able.

"Parental support is very good with many parents interested in education, which shows in pupil motivation. There's more of a work ethos here than at other schools I've worked in, shown by the fact that 50 per cent of our leavers go on to higher education.

"We do a lot of work on self-esteem and have an extensive sports and extra-curricular programme which obviously feeds back into ethos and attainment."

Campbeltown Grammar, Argyll

Acting headteacher Michael Casey says:

"Three-plus Highers at bands A to C rose from 11 per cent in 1997 to 27 per cent in 1999 and Standard grade Credits 1 and 2 rose from 29 per cent to 39 per cent.

"After an inspection report published in January 1998, which expressed some concern with Highers, we made attainment a priority, establishing an ethos of achievement, raising pupils' expectations and putting emphasis on homework, while the pace of learning was increased.

"We have given principal teachers an extra period a week to work on monitoring and evaluation, and there are more co-ordinated meetings between departments and with the senior management team. Homework is embedded in schemes of work as a positive feature of individual subjects and all pupils have homework diaries.

"We offer study support for all year groups, while targetting S4 groups for a full revision programme. Part of our ethos is that we are a welcoming school where pupils feel valued and this helps breed success. We have a new pupil council and 350 of our 550 pupils took part in an activities week last June, which included painting murals around the school. This all helps with ethos.

"Absence figures have come down from an average of 12 per cent five years ago to 7.2 per cent. Achievement demands attendance and our target is that no pupil should have more than a 5 per cent absence rate."

Bannernman High School, Glasgow

Headteacher Iain Duncan says:

"Our Standard grade results have gone up steadily over the last three years, with pupils attaining five-plus Credit 1 passes rising from 22 per cent three years ago to 28 per cent last year and 32 per cent this year. We're looking for a steady increase rather than a jump because we get a good year group. I think two major strategies behind the success were getting staff to work as a team, and our positive behaviour initiative.

"Pupils were not getting recognition. We introduced merit slips. They have been well received by pupils and parents. It's about helping raise self-esteem and target setting for pupils who could do better. With the help of parents, our study support classes were targeted at those pupils who might have settled for a General pass, urging them to aim for Credit. You raise expectations, which means hard work for staff.

"Our Higher results have remained steady in the last few years, and that's our target area now for improvement."

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