Solution Focused Planning


The power of our strategic groups came to the fore this week at our 3 -18 Strategic Learning and Teaching Group.

This group has 25 members who represent a wide cross-section of those of us involved in education in East Lothian.  I know its accepted logic that such a large group can’t operate successfully but it’s the very size of, and representation within the group that actually makes it effective.

We started the meeting reflecting upon the impact of our Learning and Teaching policy in the last year.  By splitting up into groups of 3 we were able to identify a wide range of observable changes in our practice throughout the authority that would evidence our emphasis on learning and teaching.

The second part of the meeting was given over to considering our Service Improvement Plan for the coming session. I showed the group a range of the possible outcomes which we have been exploring.  One of the draft outcomes read as follows:

“All children will achieve Level B in reading by the end of P4, level D by the end of P7, and Level E by the end of S2.”

We discussed the thinking behind this desired outcome and the reaction it might stimulate amongst teachers. The problem lay in the notion of “All” and the idea it just seems to reaffirm a focus on attainment – which many teachers just see as a means of keeping the Authority and HMIe happy – as opposed to helping individual children learn.

I’ve written so many plans for departments, schools and authorities now that I’ve become acutely aware of the dissonance between what the writer of the plan might intend and the perception of the plan by those who have to implement it.

The idea behind the outcome is that we would like every child to be able to read by the age of 9 – at least well enough that their reading ability does not limit their progress in any other area of the curriculum. As we wrestled with the problem of how we might come up with an outcome which was clear, kept our focus on reading, but didn’t antagonise teachers we struck upon a solution. That solution was to take the problem to the teachers – let them know what we wanted to achieve, why it was important, and  some guidance on the characteristics of an outcome – and let them come up with the answer.

The power of this idea is that has so many advantages:

  1. It engages teachers with the rationale of the outcome approach;
  2. It will enable us to generate an agreed outcome which has a wide range of stakeholder ownership;
  3. It will enable us to have the impact we desire, i.e. make reading a central focus of our practice in schools.

It’s only through talking through a problem like this with such a wide ranging group that such solutions can be generated.

TESS Article 7 – Early years have a lot to answer for


This is a copy of the article which was recently published in TESS. It was based on the following post and comments.

Ever since I started teaching, I’ve been frustrated with the idea of “Christmas leavers”.The school leaving age regulations state: “Children may leave school once they reach their statutory school leaving date; this is dependent on date of birth. For children born between March 1 and September 30, it is May 31 of their fourth year of secondary school. For children born between October 1 and February 28, it is the last day of the December term of the school session in which they are 16.”

It never ceases to amaze me how many of the children with the most challenging behaviour are in this latter group. In a recent visit to an off-site behaviour support unit, I was struck by the exceptionally high proportion of boys who were – or would be – “Christmas leavers”.

It’s interesting to relate this to the correlation between age and Standard grade attainment. There is a significant negative difference in attainment for boys who fall into the Christmas leaver category, whereas there is no such correlation for girls.

I can’t think of any better evidence that early years education has an influence upon attainment in later years. Yet we continue to send children to school as young as possible. As a colleague recently commented on my learning log: “I have never been able to understand parents who send their kids, boys or girls, to school before they have to.

“But he/she is ready for school” is the usual refrain. It’s nonsense. If kids are “ready” at four and a half to start school, they will be even more “ready” when they are five and a half.

To continue this link between early years and secondary school outcomes, it’s interesting to reflect that many boys find themselves in the “bottom group” in their early primary years and, unfortunately, stay there throughout their school career. The move to active learning in early years is certainly countering some of this, and I’m greatly encouraged by what I am seeing in our classrooms. There is a much greater level of engagement in the learning process than had previously been the case.

Nevertheless, the gap in attainment between younger and older children does require that we think very carefully before allowing “young” children to commence their primary school education.

Recent research, and our intuitive understanding, into the link between the ability to read and the ability to access the curriculum would suggest that a child’s developmental level is a key factor in their success or failure. Yet we treat younger children, who might be 20 per cent behind in their development, in exactly the same way as their peers. Is it any wonder that they struggle, disengage and seek displacement activities in their later years? If we don’t get things right at the beginning, children are playing catch-up for the rest of their time in school – yet so many of them never catch up.

Becoming a parent again


I’ve become a parent again!!!!

One of the most exciting aspects of my new job is that I intend to take on the role of Education Champion for Looked After and Accommodated Children in East Lothian. The reality of the educational outcomes of this group of children in Scotland is is quite shameful:

  • The attendance of children and young people looked after at home was 84.8%, looked after away from home was 91.5% and for all looked after children and young people was 87.9%; compared to an attendance rate of 93.1% for children and young people who were not looked after.
  • The exclusion rate per 1000 pupils for children and young people looked after at home was 323, for looked after away from home was 354 and for all looked after children and young people was 339; compared to 53 for those who were not looked after. 
  • 4.1% of children not looked after left school with no qualifications; this figure increased to 24% where the young person was looked after and accommodated and 41.9% when looked after at home.

It is the responsibility of the local authority to take on the role of Corporate Parent – or as Adam Ingram described it:

 “In some ways it’s like having the best bits of being a ‘pushy parent’: ensuring each individual child is having their own needs addressed and truly being looked after. Authorities and agencies can never fully replace a parent, but they can turn around the experiences of children from challenging backgrounds by asking ‘What would I want for my own child?’

I’d like to be that pushy parent and to be joined in that role by every single person who works for East Lothian Council.

When  I was a student I worked in a Secure Children’s Home. It was a seminal experience for me and I remember thinking that these kids didn’t have chance.  Perhaps I’m now in a position to try to do something about it?

Here are some further details about Looked After and Accommodated Children:

Scotland’s looked after children and young people live in a wide variety of home settings, broadly speaking they fall into the following groups:

  • At home with their birth parent(s)
  • With friends and relatives of their family
  • In foster care
  • In a residential unit/children’s unit
  • In a residential school
  • In secure accommodation

The living environment does appear to have a direct bearing on the educational outcomes of Scotland’s looked after children and young people. Based on the information gathered for the Children’s Social Work Statistics and Scottish Executive National Statistics Publications in relation to educational outcomes, when compared to other looked after children and young people:

  • Children and young people who are looked after at home with their parents do least well, as a group, in terms of attendance and achievement when compared to other groups of looked after children and young people.
  • Children and young people who are looked after and accommodated in foster care do best, as a group, in terms of attendance and achievement when compared to other groups of looked after children and young people.
  • Children and young people who are looked after and accommodated in residential units do least well, as a group, when compared to other groups of looked after and accommodated children and young people.

As at 31st March 2006, there were 12,966 looked after children and young people in Scotland. Of this group:

  • 56% were looked after at home by their parents or with other family members or friends and 44% were looked after and accommodated in foster care, residential or secure settings;
  • Almost 53% of Scotland’s looked after children and young people are aged under 12 years;
  • Just over 64% of children and young people looked after in foster care are aged under 12 years;
  • Almost 91% of children and young people looked after and accommodated in a non-secure local authority residential home or unit are aged 12 years or over; and,
  • Over 90% of children and young people looked after and accommodated in residential schools are of secondary school age or older.

25%  of the prison population were Looked After and Accommodated Children – this figure rises to 50% of the prison population under 25!!!

Learning experiences – shaping a future


I spent this morning at the Ansel Adams: Celebration of Genius at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh.

I first encountered Ansel Adam’s work a few years ago when I led a party of Dunbar Grammar School pupils to Yosemite Valley where we were “Following in John Muir’s Footsteps” – John Muir was a former pupil of Dunbar Grammar.

In what was a life changing experience I used to get up every morning at 5.30am and watch the sunrise over the Valley.  Looking at Adams’ photographs this morning I was taken back to these special moments. So how does a photographer manage to create such powerful images, which are so much more than photographs?

Perhaps it had something to do with Adams’ childhood and upbringing where he was an unconventional child who was probably dyslexic and hyperactive. His father recognised this and set about educating him at home and providing him with an incredibly rich range of experiences which shaped and nurtured the boy. Ansel Adams described this as follows:

“I often wonder at the strength and courage my father had in taking me out of the traditional school situation and providing me with these extraordinary learning experiences. I am certain he established the positive direction of my life that otherwise, could have been confused and chaotic. I trace who I am and the direction of my development to those years of growing up in our house on the dunes — propelled especially by an internal spark tenderly kept alive and glowing by my father.”

It’s revealing insights like these that confirm for me the need to recognise the importance of learning experiences which extend far beyond our existing perception of what “schooling” should be.

Elements of Leadership

One of the best Headteachers I’ve ever encountered was Norman Roxburgh, Headteacher at Earlston High School for nearly 20 years.  Norman retained his enthusiasm, commitment and passion for learning and teaching throughout his career. I learned many things from Norman and so I was delighted to see his recent contribution to TESS.  There are many who write about leadership; research leadership, and talk about leadership – Norman lived it. He’s given me persmission to copy his article here.

Elements of Leadership

Before I retired from my post as Headteacher of Earlston High School at Easter of last year, I was asked to address Borders Headteachers on ” Leadership”. It was a subject to which I had given very little thought, but it was interesting for me to look back over my career and to recognise various aspects of leadership which I have seen. (Incidentally, I strongly agree with the idea that all teachers are leaders.)

After completing a degree in Engineering, I spent a year with VSO, teaching Physics. Despite having no training and no experience, I was invited to join the Management Team, because I was a “graduate from Scotland “.  I think this is an example of leadership by “status”. There are many examples where we are expected to follow someone simply because of their status.

After doing an MSc, I was not sure what to do next. There were plenty of opportunities for a graduate in microelectronics in the 70’s, but I wanted something different. A friend dared me to apply to a company, which provided electronic services on oilrigs, because it was the highest paid job in the “Directory of Graduate Opportunities”. During training in Paris a senior manager addressed the trainees. He explained the company owned us and that we would be told when to eat, when to sleep, and when we could make love; (only he was not so polite). This is leadership by “ownership” and I am sure this element of leadership is much used in the world today.

After completing teacher training I was very fortunate to be accepted on a British Council scheme to teach in Malaysia. This was a great experience in a wonderful country. The school was a prestigious government boarding school for gifted boys from local villages. The boys were very able and very hardworking. Despite having to study in a new language, most were very successful in ‘A’ Level exams. The headteacher could decide which teachers should be transferred out of the school. I recall one occasion when a teacher was rather reluctant to volunteer for an extra duty, but the suggestion that he might like to work in a very distant village resulted in great enthusiasm for the project. I think this is leadership by  “Power” and although headteachers in this country do not exercise this level of power, they can decide who teaches which class next year. That can be great power.

I was fortunate to be seconded to manage the TVEI extension project for Scottish Borders. The project was very well funded and, if schools met certain criteria, they received extra staffing and extra funding. At first some schools were reluctant to meet the criteria, but when asked if they wanted the extra funding all became willing. This element is leadership by “Money”, and it is very effective. Projects with no funding have a serious disadvantage.

 I think another important element in leading staff is by “Fear”. An example would be fear of inspectors. I am concerned when I hear of a headteacher telling teachers to do something because of what inspectors will say; rather than because it is the best thing for the pupils. This fear is very understandable. I think the HMI has to work hard to persuade teachers that their first priority is to give an excellent service to their pupils, and if they do, so they have nothing to fear.

Not surprisingly, I have left what I believe is the most important element of leadership till last. It is leadership by “Respect”. It is true that respect has to be earned and it is earned by doing things well. If a leader does her own job well; if she helps other staff when they need help; if she deals well with the most difficult problems; if she communicates well and if she acknowledges the work of others, then she will earn respect and people will listen to her when she wants their support. Likewise, the teacher who works hard and does things well for his pupils will usually earn the respect of his  pupils.

An example of outstanding leadership is when a teacher runs a sports squad, or puts on a musical show and gets sophisticated teenagers to give up their time to train in the mud or attend Sunday rehearsals. They are the natural leaders of young people. They are not common, but they are very valuable and much respected.

One might argue that the elements I have identified have overlap with each other and that things are not so simple. No doubt there are other elements and no doubt the good leader has to employ a variety of elements. However, I am certain that my conclusion is true and if it is obvious to you, then I am very pleased. You are probably well respected as a good leader.

Norman Roxburgh.

New York, New York……


Both of  our sons are heading off to Austrialia and New Zealand to play rugby this summer, before going on to university in the Autumn, so we have been looking for a family holiday before they set off.

The decision was sealed today and we’re off to New York next Thursday for a three night stay in that fantastic city.

Gill and I were there in the summer and loved it.

Excited?  You bet!!!

Revolution, not Evolution


A Curriculum for Excellence provides us with a singular opportunity to radically transform our secondary school curriculum. It seems to be taken as a fact in education that change should be something that evolves over time “Evolution not revolution” – I’ve used the term myself on many occasions. But there are times when evolution just means more of the same – it’s safe, conservative and often results in no change taking place at all.

So here are 33 ideas for the secondary school curriculum, some of which might not be revolutionary in themselves, but taken collectively would certainly constitute a revolution:

1. Children and Young People will take tests and exams when they are ready – not because of the year group to which they belong.

2. The majority of learning will not be delivered in year group blocks, i.e. not age specific. Students will access learning opportunities as a consequence of prior learning.

3. There will be significant opportunities for young people to follow areas of personal interest during the school week.

4. Home and school learning will be considered to be of equivalent value and be reflected in the learning programmes developed by each young person.

5. Each young person will have a unique learning programme (timetable) which will include home and school learning in it’s widest sense.

6. Supplementary courses (delivered in the evening) will be available for parents to enable them to support their child’s learning.

7. Parents will be encouraged to “shadow” their child’s learning at any time they might be available.

8. Teachers will have personal timetables/contracts which will enable them to work from home – supporting online learning; at school during the day – supporting Learning Teams, delivering courses, and supporting core activities; at school during the evening – delivering courses and supporting core activities.

9. We will develop a “Learning Licence” model of progressive courses where children and young people “learn how to learn” for which they will receive accreditation.

10. Each child and young person will be part of a Learning Team (20 members), which will represent a cross-section of ages. Each Learning Team will be supported and facilitated by a teacher who will help guide them in their progress through their own curriculum. Learning Team’s will meet for one hour each day and will also encourage and enable peer coaching.

11. Young people over the age of 14 can apply for up to one day work experience which can be paid or unpaid employment.

12. Young people over the age of 16 need only attend the courses they are following – they can apply for up to two days work experience which can be paid or unpaid employment.

13. We will break the traditional inter-locking and restrictive nature of the timetable by ensuring that teaching staff spend the majority of their teaching time working with a “horizontal” level of work.

14. Young people over the age of 16 may devise their own curriculum by accessing courses available at their own school, other schools,  further education and higher education institiutions  learning and on-line learning environments.

15. Children and young people will be progressively taught, from an early age, how to make the best use of virtual learning environments.

16. All courses and materials will be made available on-line via GLOW.

17. Schools can use voluntary mentors who – following appropriate disclosure – can support the independent learning of students.

18. The maximum size of any Learning Group will be 100 learners, e.g. the traditional year group; or house group would be too big. It will be possible to  belong to a “vertical” and “horizontal” Learning Group. Teachers and other members of staff will be associated with a Learning Group

19. All pupil support staff  (including guidance staff ) should be focused upon the needs of children with additional support for learning needs. All other children and young people should be supported by their Learning Team. PSE will be embedded in the curriculum.

20. The learning needs and curriculum for a group of young people will be delivered by a Learning Team of teachers and support staff.

21. All secondary schools will adopt a common structure for the school day to enable shared on-line learning to take place and for common timetabling to be established for some subjects.

22. We will create an East Lothian Learning Campus where children and young people can access learning suited to their needs regardless of geographic location.

23. We will form a strategic partnership with further and higher education institutions to offer distance learning and on-site courses.

24. Some courses for senior students will be delivered in the evening.

25. We will seek to double the current range of certificated courses available to young people in East Lothian – many of which will have a vocational focus.

26. We will offer a wide range of learning opportunities for adults to access during the school day and in the evening.

27. We will work with local employers to support modern apprenticeships where young people can access learning and training.

28. We will develop specialisms at all of our secondary schools which will enable some young people to focus their education on particular attributes which they are seeking to develop. 

29. All learners will have their own personal computer with wifi capacity which they can use at home and at school to access their learning.

30. Teachers will be members of staff of the East Lothian Learning Campus and can be deployed in any location with their agreement.

31. All young people must achieve Level E in Reading, Writing and Maths by the age of 14 – unless they have specific learning needs – their curriculum would be modified to enable additional time in these areas to facilitate learning

32. Schools will develop and promote their identity through a strong emphasis upon wider achievements such as music, creative arts, performing arts, sport, community volunteering, local politics, outdoor education, community leadership – these will be referred to as “core activities”

33. There will be no ability groupings for any classes, although differentiation within classes will be encouraged.

Acting opportunity

No, not some advert for a stage show.  I’ve been appointed as (Acting) Director of Education and Children’s Services for East Lothian Council. I went through a very rigorous interview process involving a 90 minute in-tray exercise on Tuesday and  90 minute interview on Wednesday in front of a panel of seven elected members.

I’m excited about the opportunity and will try to set out my goals for this period over the next few days.

A Warm and Fuzzy Tale

 HipwomanOnce upon a time I was told a story by Alastair Torrance – another of my former colleagues from Selkirk High School.  Alastair told me about A Warm and Fuzzy Tale – you need to read it! The basic idea is that we all have an endless supply of “Warm Fuzzies” to give to other people which make them feel warm and fuzzy. However, the reality is that some of our conditioning means we are happier giving out “cold pricklies” – which obviously make people feel cold and prickly.

And so it was on Friday that Stewart McKinnon passed on a “Warm Fuzzy” when he described his recent visit to Meadowpark Unit for children with severe and complex needs.  He was asking some parents about how they knew that their children enjoyed school, especially as some of them have very severe communication problems.  The answer was stunningly simple and yet so powerful:

“We have to hide their school clothes on Saturday or they will want to go to school”

Now that was a real warm fuzzy!!

Assessment is For Learning – secondary style

I had a very interesting and rewarding day yesterday visiting Dunbar Grammar School and Musselburgh Grammar School, concluding with a visit to Ross High School to meet a group of teachers from the cluster.

I know the common perception is that secondary schools are significantly behind primaries in the implementaton of formative assessment but I saw enough today to suggest that the gap is closing – and closing quickly. The Learning Team approach is bearing great rewards at DGS where a group led byLiz Layhe, a Chartered Teacher, who is having a remarkable impact on the quality of learning and teaching in the school.  What I found particularly interesting was the role of Gavin Clark, the Depute Head, who acts a a faciltator to the group as opposed to being its leader -if  there was any strategy I would recommend to schools in this area – it’s that such group is led by a teacher.

At Musselburgh I saw some very innovative practice and a real desire to actively engage children in their learning. I’m convinced that one of the ways in which we can consolidate good practice in our secondary schools is to pick up on the Learning Team approach.

Onto Ross High School where we had a wide ranging discussion. One of the points we focused on was the need to improve the links between primary and secondary staff with a focus on learning from each other.