Extending Learning

I visited Aberlady Primary School last week and came across an intersting development in association with North Berwick High School.

A group of P7 children who are working at Level E were needing more challenging tasks.  The teacher contacted the secondary school and they discussed Level F work.  Following discussion they decided to explore some project work which would consolidate some of the children’s existing skills and knowledge.

The task they set the children was to draw scale map of the entire school and school grounds – they had to solve problems relating to measuring distances, angles and areas.

The quality of their work was astounding and allied to huge levels of motivation they worked together in a very positive manner.

Just to test their accuracy I asked them to estimate how far I had walked from the headteacher’s office to their classroom using the drawings – they estimated and then checked using a trundle wheel – they were only 1.5 metres out.  From my recent experience working with some building companies (who shall remain nameless) such accuracy would be a rare thing. This was definitely A Curriculum for Excellence in action – amazing!

If you want to find out more contact Susan MacKay at Aberlady or Simon Smith at North Berwick HIgh School.

Leaders of Learning Network

I attended the fourth Leaders of Learning Network meeting in Musselburgh this week.

These meetings are an opportunity for members of staff who do not hold promoted positions to contribute their own ideas towards the development of education in East Lothian and to have direct access to the Head of Education about any matters of concern.

The meeting went very well – perhaps due to the fact that the entire agenda was driven by the group who came up with items with a “talking partner”. The items were as follows:

Finding out more about learning and teaching in primary schools – this is without doubt the single most recurring item I hear from secondary teachers.

What’s happening with GLOW?

Who decides the management structure in a secondary school?

Is it possible for non-promoted teachers to be given more responsibility for leading initiatives in the department and the school?

How could we make better use of CPD sessions planned for Friday afternoons?

How do we promote networking between teachers from different schools within a cluster?

How do we prevent primary teachers from becoming deskilled now they don’t stay in the class with specialist teachers, e.g PE?

Why can’t we develop children’s typing skills and make touch typing as important as the ability to write legibly?

We went through all of these items and such a discussion can significantly help us to shape strategy. we explored the possibility of having a Leaders of Learning Conference on a Saturday morning to develop our network – would people come to such an event?

Parents and Children as Customers – an outward facing public service


You know that niggling feeling that you get when you’ve got an idea bubbling just underneath the surface and can’t quite express it – then again perhaps you don’t but it’s one with which I’m often afflicted.  It’s like that for me at the moment with this business of parents and children as customers.  I just can’t help feeling it would make such a difference to the quality of the service we provide – yet at the same time the very word customer sets up such a huge obstacle – no matter how you might try to redefine it as a concept in the 21st century.

I’ve played around with  suggesting that “customer” should be a metaphor for how we should treat parents and children – but this hits the same deep rooted problem of traditional perceptions of the relationship between provider and customer.

My niggle was rekindled yesterday when listening to Anna – a sixth year student from a school in the Scottish Highlands. She was very positive about most of her school experiences – but the recurring theme was how things could be so much better of the teachers and the school tried to look at the school experience through her eyes, and the eyes of her fellow students. To paraphrase what she was saying – and this is, of course, my interpretation – “school isn’t designed for her or her peers, but one where their needs are secondary to the interests of the school”. Yet when I asked a question to headteacher, who was also on the panel, if he was comfortable with the idea of children as customers he immediately replied that he wasn’t, to be quickly supported by Anna herself.

So that was it for me – here was someone pushing for a service which was directed towards her needs – a customer focussed service – but  for whom the very word customer put her off. So no more talk of customers – but what are the alternatives?

Guineapigmum likes the idea of partners – and I think a good school should be characterised by a partnership between teachers, parents and children – but it still doesn’t capture for me the idea of being “customer” (oops) facing. In other words it’s possible to enter into a partnership where you are primarily interested in fulfilling your own needs – and that by working in partnership with others we gain mutual benefit.  However, should schools only enter into partnership with parents and children to gain something for themselves? What if a parent doesn’t want to be a partner – do we treat them differently? What if a six year old child doesn’t want to be a partner – do we give up on them and wait until they do? 

As I’ve mentioned more than once on this Log my own father was a doctor.  He served his patients – their needs predominated.  He sacrificed his own needs to serve the needs of his community.  Sure he worked with his patients and they loved him for it – but it wasn’t a partnership.  I suppose the word here is “duty” – a duty to serve those who needed his services. They didn’t have a “duty” to work with him. 

For me it’s all to do with which way you are facing.  Do we start facing towards our own needs (inwards)? – or do we start facing towards those whom we serve (outwards)?

So that’s it – simple really!  We need to be an outward facing service where we seek to provide the highest quality service possible to those whom we serve – parents and their children (not customers) – and if that means that some of our own needs and wants have to be sacrificed to that end then so be it.

Working together?


I’m just back from the Association of Directors of Education Scotland (ADES) annual conference which was held in Aviemore.

Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for Education and Lifelong Learning, was speaking and was stressing the importance of everyone involved in education working together, particularly in the new world of local outcome agreements.

As she was speaking I couldn’t help feeling that we in educational leadership positions in Scotland need to work a lot closer than we maybe have done in the past to ensure that we provide a united front to represent the needs of children.  Just last week the Headteachers Association Scotland, HAS,  (secondary sector) held their conference, and I’d been speaking at the Association of Headteachers and Deputes Scotland, AHDS,  (primary sector) just a few weeks ago.

All of our respective organisations have their place in Scottish education and HAS and AHDS do a great job representing the needs of their members as formal trade unions. However, it seems to me that there are such huge overlaps between our concerns, visions and backgrounds that we would have a huge amount to gain from working together in a more strategic manner – particulary in relation to some of the big issues facing Scottish education and children’s services. The direction of travel set out by Fiona Hyslop for the journey facing education over the next ten years suggests that we could collectively make a much greater impact if we looked for points of synergy and worked together to influence, transform and protect Scottish education. I’m not suggesting for one minute that any of the organisations forfeit their own identity -simply that we enhance our impact by forming a more strategic partnership on points of mutual interest.

Just a thought.

Active Learning – for 17 year olds

The active learning banner is sometimes seen to be the sole preserve of the those who teach in early years of primary school – and it’s true that I have seen many very exciting examples of active learning in such contexts during my school visits.

However, in the course of a wonderful visit to North Berwiuck High School this afternoon I saw learning taking place which would rival many groups of five year olds for enthusiasm, determination to learn and sheer sense of fun.

It was in  Modern Languages Higher French class where the teacher had students working in small groups discussing, working out, and exploring three different personal letters. The students were confident enough to work things out together with  the teacher moving round encouraging, stimulating and supporting their learning. But it wasn’t so much this lesson which caught my attention but the mention of a lesson which had taken place the week before in the same class.

The students had prepared for and participated in a debate “A woman’s place is in the home”.  They had worked out their arguments in groups and the teacher had helped them with vocabulary. Apparently the whole thing took off once they entered into the discussion where they had to use the language in a much more confrontational and natural manner by responding to and challenging the opposition.

I took five minutes at the end of the lesson to chat with the class and asked them if they needed such learning experiences as senior students “surely you just need the the information provided to help you pass the exam?” – I asked provocatively.

They didn’t hold back and made it quite clear that regardless of age they needed and demanded a variety of learning experiences provided by their teacher if they were to learn – but more importantly consolidate their learning in different contexts. 

This was crucial lesson for me and confirmed my growing belief that learners are learners regardless of age and that techiniques and approaches which work well in an infant class can be translated effectively, with suitable modification, into classroom practice for much older children , and vice versa – the barriers only exist in our own minds.

We have so much to learn from each other.

Local Outcome Agreements


We are about to enter a brave new world in relation to local governn ment funding with the introduction of Local Outcome Agreements (LOAs). An LOA changes the way in which money is released to Local Authorities by the Scottish Government and has the potential to radically shift the way in which we do our business.

Up to this point in time the focus has been on inputs to the system and linking money to particular national initiatives. For example in education we would receive money for developments such as Healthy Eating, or Study Support.  This money was “ring-fenced” i.e. it had to be spent in these areas and as long as it went to that budget heading the government were happy (within reason).

The idea behind Local Outcome Agreements is that funding is less tightly connected to particular initiatives leaving the local authority with more flexibility to meet local needs and circumstances. What will be specified will be the outcome that the authority agree to focus upon, e.g to raise the academic attainment for the lowest attaining 20% –  how this is achieved will be up the authority with less interference from national governement – or so the theory goes.

The following is essentially a worked example. An LOA includes three elements – Outcomes; Outputs and Baselines. The examples included:

outcomes such as ‘a reduction in the number of crimes committed by ..% from x to y
by 2003/04’;

outputs such as ‘deployment of .. neighbourhood wardens in A, B and C’ and

baseline ‘The number of crimes committed in 2006 was x in AA community. The
target is to reduce the number of crimes by 5% to x-5% in AA by 2007/08. Source:
police/local crime surveys’.

The report sets out the following advantages and disadvantages of Local Outcome Agreements:

• Local ownership – priorities are set by partners and communities to reflect local
issues within a broad national framework.
• The shift in policy focus to outcomes and impacts – the LOA format makes partners
think about impact rather than just delivery and challenges them to consider what
approach to delivery is the most appropriate.
• Flexibility – the emphasis on outcomes rather than outputs allows partners flexibility
in programme delivery – a positive feature, particularly from the standpoint of
community involvement as the services and projects are not pre-determined.
• Clarity – LOAs provide a clear statement of priorities and aims.
• Accountability – there is a transparency about LOA partners and what they aim to
achieve. This allows the LOA to act as a reference document for the public and other
• Partnership – the general view was that the process of drawing up a LOA had helped
to engage community planning partners.
• Evidence – emphasis on outcomes means that LOAs have the potential to provide inbuilt
monitoring and evaluation and thus provide an evidence base for future policy
• The challenge of programme design – designing a programme with appropriate
performance indicators, in consultation with local people, is challenging.
• Consultation issues – for some Pathfinders the level of community consultation
involved in LOAs was excessive while for others not enough time had been allowed.
• Time limited – despite the greater flexibility of payment through Revenue Support
Grant (RSG), LOAs are still constrained by the difficulties of a time limited programme e.g. the difficulty of attracting and retaining staff for a temporary initiative.
• Conflict – for a few Pathfinders the use of LOAs led to a deterioration of their
relationship with the Executive. Other Councils felt that the Executive had been
flexible and understanding.

Education perhaps faces the greatest challenge in this new system as we had a large number of ring-fenced funding streams whcih went directly to support educational services in the authority. These funds will no longer be protected and it will be up to local authorities to prioritise where their money is spent – which of course means that there would be no guarantee that what previously came to education will necessarily come to them in the future.

On the up side we can have more flexibility to focus on outcomes as opposed to having to “do” things a certain way.  It would seem logical that this model is cascaded out to schools , where the school development plan would form a a Local Outcome Agreement with the authority with schools being much more at liberty to decide how they achieve that outcome. Of course the challenge would remain to try to keep some consistency between schools, although I think I would be happy enough to see consistency between schools wiythin a particular cluster.

The concern for schools will be the ability to becnhmark between authorties will become nigh impossible as they each identify separate agreements with the government based on local needs.

We’ll be getting more information over the next few weeks and I will endeavour to update this log as means of trying to make sense of it for myself.

A brave new world indeed!


Back to work

I get back to work tomorrow after nearly a fortnight off due a back injury. It’s been the longest period off work I’ve ever had – I think the previous record was a couple of days with flu (and not just man flu!)

On reflection I think I was quite lucky that when I fell I didn’t do any lasting damage – it’s frightening to think that just a few inches can make the difference between a bruise and a wheelchair.

I’m looking forward to getting back and hope I can get up to speed fairly quickly. Thanks to all  my colleagues who have wished me well – particularly my secondary head teacher friends who sent me a lovely bottle of Shiraz – very nice!

School in a cave

I came across a remarkable photograph yesterday of a school in China which is set up in a cave.

A cave in a mountainous village in southwest China’s Guizhou province is of special significance to local children, as it’s the venue of their primary school.

The school, built back in 1984, is called the Mid-Cave Primary School, since it sits right in the middle one of the three caves in a big mountain of the area.

Everyday, eight diligent teachers at this unique yet environmentally-tough school teach their 186 students, who tramp over hill and dale to get their education. Some of the pupils spend even six hours each day traveling back and forth to their cave for knowledge.

The school is the only source of hope for children who live in the surrounding villages in the mountains of Shuitang Township, Ziyun county, an autonomous but poverty-stricken county inhabited by the Miao and Buyi ethnic groups.”

I found this a humbling story yet it’s this strong desire to be educated which will continue to drive the ecomomies of other less developed countries.

I wonder of it’s possible to ignite the same desire to be educated in a highly developed country such as ours or do we all just take education for  granted?

Children as customers?


In my last post I came off the fence and expressed my sympathy for an approach where schools treated parents as customers.  In this post I’d like to look at whether or not such a relationship could be extended to children.

Having undertaken some research into this field I know that this concept has even greater potential to generate controversy and antagonism than the notion of “parents as customers.”

At this point I could reflect upon that research and literature surrounding this concept but I thought it might be better to simplify it (perhaps over-simplify I agree) by repeating the list of things I looked for as a customer from my previous post – and then consider whether they applied to the “child as customer” perspective. Before considering the following list I would ask the reader to switch from their current role, i.e. teacher, parent, etc and think back to when they were a pupil at school and look at the list from that perspective, if you are already a pupil then no need to switch:

  1. fulfil my needs – or at least fulfil what you said you were going to do;
  2. treat me with respect and don’t take me for granted;
  3. try to see my side if we have a disagreement;
  4. respond quickly to my concerns; 
  5. provide value for money;
  6. explain things clearly if there are changes or why my needs might not be able to be met;
  7. keep me regularly informed – don’t talk down to me;
  8. look for new ways of extending and improving your service to anticipate my needs;
  9. offer me choices to meet my needs;
  10. have expertise in your field and make decisions;
  11. seek my opinion and take account of my opinion;
  12. try not to make errors but of you do let me know as soon as possible and admit the mistake;
  13. put yourself in my place and improve services from that perspective

The harsh reality is that very few of the above were fulfilled by the school that I attended. From the entire list the whole place seemed to run around an emphasis on Point 10, i.e. they were good at making decisions, although even then I’m not sure about the level of expertise.

So have things changed significantly in the intervening period? Well they probably have – schools are certainly much better at most of the things on the list but I would argue that the majority haven’t fully been engaged with.  There is still a reticence to move to a customer relationship with children for fear of giving away power.

It might help here to consider something that was a major aspect of the Demos paper, which was the importance in service design of seeing the customer relationship as a journey. Obviously a three year old has limited capacity to act as an informed customer. The education process has a role to shape and care for that individual.  However, as that child progresses through the system the list of things which I’ve provided above starts to become more and more necessary. I would suggest that one of the roles of education is to gradually move towards fulfilling these requirements in line with the development and capacity of the child – to the point where all are integral parts of the way in which they are treated.

Now I know this sounds like cloud cuckoo land but I have been there as a teacher, principal teacher, depute head teacher and head teacher. In my early career I think I would have fulfilled very few of the criteria from my list – however, as I became more experienced – and came under the influence of one of the best depute head teachers I’ve ever seen in the form of Ron McDonald – I began to see that we can treat children as customers and retain respect, order and – if necessary – control.  Looking back I don’t think I ever used the word “customer” – aside from perhaps suggesting that a certain 15 year old was a difficult customer. But the line of travel has been consistent.

For me the entire customer relationship is built around mutual trust and mutual responsibility. The more I treat a child as a valued customer the more respect I gain.  That’s not to say that I let them run all over me – in fact quite the reverse – I set high standards and expect children to uphold these standards. What I would do was explain clearly what these standards were, explain why they were necessary,  and apply these consistently for all children.  But this is no different to the hotel which might ask people to leave the dining room if they were disturbing others; or a doctor who might ask a patient if they want to go to another practice due to their unreasonable behaviour.  Having customers doesn’t mean that you let them bully or assert their personal will – particularly if it runs counter to the needs and wishes of the majority.

I remember once being confronted by a huge and angry father – he pointed at me and said – “you work for me” – I pulled myself up to my full 5’10” and told in him in very unambiguous manner that I did not work for him but that worked for every child that he saw in this school – of which is child was only one! He stormed out of the school – but came back the next day to apologise.