Towards greater expectations

Praise, greater expectations, keeping up the pressure on homework, study support, school uniform, the use of drama, number-crunching even football.

These are just some of the multifaceted strategies schools now use to improve their exam results and their own standing. But even successful heads are cautious.

There is no magic solution, Hilda de Felice, head of St Lukes High in Barrhead, says. It has notched up the second-best improvement for three-plus Highers among local authority schools in the past three years.

The best performer in this category is Tobermory High where Higher passes shot up from 21 per cent to 47 per cent from 1996-98. Jenny Des-Fountain, the head, also urged caution. I wouldnt say weve cracked it by any means, she said.

But the most cautionary note from Tobermory is one which applies to many secondaries across the country its small roll.

Although were very, very proud of these results, Ms Des-Fountain says, the key issue to remember is that, with small numbers, any fluctuation can affect percentage figures dramatically.

Tobermorys roll of 179 (at September 1997) contained a fifth year of 29 last session, of whom 14 gained three or more Higher passes, which is just on 50 per cent (the Scottish Office tables calculate figures on the basis of the previous years fourth-year roll, a controversial approach).

The Mull schools achievement was also the result of a strong fourth year of whom 57 per cent got five-plus Standard grade Credit awards the year before, which fed into this years Higher.

This years Standard grade 1-2 results are down to 39 per cent. But, in a way, I am prouder of their efforts, Ms Des-Fountain said, because there were twice as many youngsters in that group who qualified for special measures to enable them to sit the exam, and for many of them that was a major achievement.

Tobermory, however, has advanced on a broad front to ensure there is no let-up in the drive to improve standards.

We have worked hard on the way we report to parents, the head says, because that is important in opening up a dialogue with children about their learning.

We set individual targets for children twice a year before and after their prelims. That attention to personal progress stretches all children whatever their ability.

Other measures include a mentoring scheme for pupils, homework planners, and paying attention to the needs of abler pupils.

Tobermory also makes use of an Easter study school which Ms Des-Fountain describes as a morale booster as much as anything else when the pupils see the school is prepared to put effort into helping with their revision and with learning to learn.

But Tobermorys head is the first to admit that it also has special advantages in being a small school which enjoys considerable parental support. She pays tribute to the dedication and commitment of a very hard-working staff who put in whatever extra hours are required.

St Lukes High in Barrhead, where more than 30 per cent of pupils are on free meals, is a world away from Mull. Yet it has distinguished itself by having the second most improved Higher results of any state school since 1996.

A committed and focused head with an engaged staff is also clearly a factor in St Lukes success. Ms de Felice, the head, has been busy attacking some fundamentals, including attitudes.

We have encouraged young people, with a sharp emphasis on that word, to think of themselves going for four Highers instead of three or five instead of four, to challenge this mythical view that they will do better if they take only three. Our argument to them is : forget it, if you can do four Highers, you can do five. Its all about working on their aspirations and expectations.

The school has also made use of the commercial pack, The Learning Game, for pupils personal development . It focuses on setting ambitious learning targets, stress management, positive thinking, speed learning, study and exam techniques, and creative thinking.

The school says the performance of several pupils who had mastered these new learning techniques has been outstanding.

Ms de Felice agrees with Bill Coyles assessment that tackling boys under-achievement is vital. St Lukes is the only East Renfrewshire secondary where boys outperform girls among those gaining five-plus Highers. But the school is cautious about making any claims since this might be another manifestation of the year group effect.

The school was holding its breath this year to see what the effect on Standard grade would be of having a fourth year composed of 66 per cent boys, Ms de Felice says.

The result was 33 per cent of S4 achieving five-plus Standard grades 1 - 2, compared with 45 per cent the previous year, which was not as bad as they had feared.

St Lukes target now is to push the benchmark Standard grade and Higher results above the 40 per cent mark.

Targets are there to be smashed, Ms de Felice says.

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