Writing – do we have to accept that boys will be boys?

I had a great visit this week to King’s Meadow Primary School in Haddington. At the beginning of my visit I had a chat with Headteacher Donald McGillivray about boy’s writing. Donald has done a fascinating analysis of boys’ attainment across the school and the statistics show that boys’ writing is of a much lower standard than girls’ writing – in what is a very high performing school. This situation is matched in most schools in East Lothian.

As I visited classes around the school I concentrated on classes which were being taught language. As it happened the classes were all working on spelling -which was being taught in a very engaging and imaginative manner -but I managed to get a chance to talk to most of the teachers and asked them about why boys were underperforming in writing. The concensus was that boys need tasks which are related to a context and that these tasks must challenge and engage their imagination. For me it demonstrated once again that it is the learning task which teachers select that holds the secret to improving learning – the challenge for us is to experiment with and work out the kind of tasks that will lead to a sustained improvement in boys writing. As it stands at the moment boys are behind girls by between 15-20% so the risk is certainly worth taking.

I came across this video from teachers.tv which showed a class where boys had closed the gap on girls. The key points  were:

  • Speaking and listening form a solid foundation for written work
  • Multimedia techniques ease reluctant students into writing
  • Role-play encourages boys to participate

One of the main things to emerge for me when I was speaking to Donald McGilliivray is one that Steven Heppell had been referring to last week and which I’d repeated at our Headteachers’ Conference is that the answers lie in our own hands and in our own schools. We need to move away from the idea that we will resolve problems such as boys writing by buying a package, training all our teachers and then expecting them to implement the programme. The reality is that all our schools are different and what might work in one school would not necessarily work in another. I also believe that such an approach only serves to foster a dependency culture which is anti-professional and ultimately self defeating, as teachers feel  deskilled and are not encouraged to reflect upon and take responsibility for their own practice.

I’d much rather see a school work out some key principles which would guide the type of learning experiences which teachers would provide for boys, then evaluate the success of these approaches then discuss, share and develop these ideas within schools, within clusters and within the authority.

Last thought – if we could close the gap between girls and boys in respect to writing we would – in a single act – raise the levels of attainment in East Lothian by an unprecedented amount, with all the corresponding impact that such a lift would have on children’s life chances.

The probable, the possible, and the actual

A group of us (some Secondary HTs and Quality Improvement Officers) met this afternoon to consider how we might develop attainment targets for schools.

One of the things we are all agreed upon is that the notion of plucking figures out of thin air and saying to a school “this is what you need to achieve next year” is nonsensical, damaging and anti-professional. After some very positive discussion we agreed to meet again with some more colleagues to flesh out out a process built upon the following principles:

  1. We will start small  (perhaps one year group) and grow our system building upon evidence
  2. We will implement the agreed system across all schools
  3. We will try to use work on MIDYIS related principle (all schools now test S2 pupils using MIDYIS) this score provides reliable predictive data about how pupils will perform at Standard Grade level in S4.
  4. We will use the ScotXed box plot data which shows how a school is perfroming in relation to other similar schools.
  5. We will try to identify and use as models departments who are adding significant value to predictive data and performing strongly in relation to similar schools – we will share this within and between schools.
  6. Head teachers will negotiate targets for departments using a similar data driven model
  7. We will ask principal teachers to negotiate targets with individual classroom teachers using a similar data driven model
  8. We will develop a targets setting model for individual pupils which is based upon a dialogue between the teacher and the pupil where the probable and the possible attainment is discussed – parents will be involved in this process.
  9. We will compare pupils possible(aspirational targets) with their actual attainment on an annual basis
  10. We will link the entire system to the the learning and teaching process in the belief that this is the only way in which we can truly raise attainment. 

Our next meeting will involve HTs, DHTs PT and members of the department – we believe that we can develop a system which is founded upon our three key areas of focus leadership, self-evaluation and learning and teaching.

Setting and the need for differentiation?


I had an interesting conversation with a teacher today about there being little need to differentiate in classes which have been set (put into ability groupings for certain subjects e.g. maths, english)

Such an assertion must be based upon the premise that all pupils are placed (through accurate assessment) in the appropriate set and that the class – which might number 25-30 – are a homogenous group.

I’m interested in this point of view as I haven’t been able to come across any research which proves that setting is more effective than mixed ability classes. I have often heard the argument that setting makes the teaching process easier.  Maybe that’s because there’s no need to differentiate? Or is there?

Four and half and not up to the mark?


I met someone during the weekend who told me about his experience of trying to get his child into an Edinburgh fee paying primary school.

I knew selection took place but I was stunned to learn that the letter he received after the selection test read: “Due to the very high levels of intelligence demonstrated by the children who have applied to enter year one this year we will be unable to offer your daughter a place”


Midyis, PIPS and ASPECT

We made a decision last year to introduce Midyis baseline testing for all our secondary schools for a test which all S2 pupil sit. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been analysing the data and its has thrown up some very interesting results.

Such has been the success that we have now agreed to use the PIPs test for P5 and are now piloting a pre-school test.

All this data will allow us to identify any pupils who are obviously operating below their potential and enable us to actively track progress over their school career. Such information supplements the on-going assessments and judgements made by teachers.

We used Midyis at Dunbar Grammar School and it provided valuable supplementary information for parents and pupils when it came to course choice in terms if offering an accurate prediction of likely attainment at Standard Grade.

This example comes from New Zealand who have been using Midyis for many years: 

A Curriculum for Excellence – going over the top?

over the top?

Alison Wishart has just returned from Australia where she was exploring alternative secondary school curriculum models – some of which match with our extreme learning ideas

I had a great chat with Alison this morning which set up a discussion with secondary head teachers this afternoon.

Alison was telling me about schools in Australia where the early years’ secondary school curriculum is built around “concepts” which we might know better as themes.  For example, one of the themes is personal identity – subjects explore this theme from their own perspective with students – e.g. biology looked at disecting sheep brains and looking at human brain structure; whilst in other subjects they looked at the influence of nature/nurture; ethnic background; geographic location, etc, etc.  The pupils then had to complete projects drawing these subjects together using their own experience. I hope I’ve got this right Alison.

Some subjects are seen as “tools” such as maths, language, ICT which enabled this exploration to take place.

Alison then told me about the single exit point assessment – as opposed to our multiple and seemingly never ending SQA assessments in our secondary schools. What prevents us from allowing pupils and teachers to have much greater freedom from S1 – S3 then pupils undertaking a one – or preferably two year course – where they sat only one assessment at the point of exit? We currently let pupils sit multiple assessments due to the fact that we are worried they have no “fall back” position.

But what if we became smarter at knowing pupils potential – the fact is we do know their potential, what we don’t know if they are going to engage with their studies or not – that is the imponderable. But what if we could turn pupils onto learning – through a more engaging curriculum  – which builds upon their primary school experience – I’d argue that the likelihood of them switching off is greatly reduced.

I  have personally known so many – thousands – of children who would have got something out of this approach but who will be first to take the leap?

This leads me to the discussion with our secondary head teachers. We were discussing SQA costs – which are rising exponentially – to the point where schools are going to have to look at their presentation policies. The reality of this will be that pupils of lower ability will gradually be limited to which exams they can sit. So what might be the alternative – well why not S1 -S3 as a developmental phase where pupils build upon their primary experience as learners? In S4 most pupils will embark upon a two year course which will lead thenm to an exam at the end of S5. Some pupils will exit at S4 and take ther exams at that point. Wow! – at long last teachers would get two uninterrupted years working with pupils towards Highers or their equivalent. So what about S6? – well that would need some thought and perhaps that’s where we need to engage with higher education to look at what they want from school education – as far as I can see they certainly don’t rate what’s coming out of schools at the moment – so what have we got to lose?

The main problem here will be parents – or so we think. They want the safety net – or so we think. They want their children to be tested regularly – or so we think. But if we were to really engage with them and explain to them and their children about what we were thinking of doing would they really react as we might expect? I’m a parent – and I would have loved to have seen my sons have this opportunity.

Should we take the first step? – or wait for someone else?

Formative and Summative – entering the Dragon’s Den

A number of separate issues that I’ve been considering over the last few weeks came together in one meeting.

These issues were: accountability; formative assessment; attainment; enabling teachers to experiment; measurement; administration;venture capitalists; trust; learning and teaching; risk management; and consistency.

And so it was this week a group of us (head teachers and managers) looked at how we might go about creating cultures in our schools where head teachers relinquished some of their control and in so doing enabled teachers to experiment with their practice with a view to improving learning and teaching.

The “risk” for head teachers (and society) is that these changes to our practice might not result in any improvement in children’s attainment.  It’s funny how people react to such a query – and immediately adopt the higher moral ground by saying that education is so much more than attainment. But this put me in mind of my discussion with Rick Segal and how he, or a someone in Dragon’s Den, might react to a teacher who went into pitch for their new business idea – in this case formative assessment – to seek their support and financial investment.

One of the problems that we face in education is that we are all adopting – to a greater or lesser extent – the principles and techniques of formative assessment – we are convinced by the logic, the rhetoric and the fact that the reaction of pupils is extremely positive. Yet what would the Dragon’s Den investor’s want to see before they invested their hard cash? The answer is obvious to everyone – evidence – hard numbers – reliable, objective and valid data. Where do we get such data? – summative assessment in the form of tests; external examinations; assessment free from teacher influence.

Teacher – “so you don’t trust me then”

Dragon – “Yes I don’t trust you – no more than I would trust someone who was trying to get me to invest in a new vacuum cleaner which will sell for $500 but doesn’t know if people will buy it or how much you will make in the first year. Where are the figures?”

Teacher – “I can tell you that pupils are engaging in lessons more than ever before. I’ve given them questionniares and the reponses are really positive. Parents are telling me that their children having never been as enthusiastic about learning. Class behaviour has improved and I don’t nearly give out as many punishment exercises.

Dragon – “OK but maybe your just entertaining the kids. Maybe they are having fun but after a few years of this they will become bored and you’ll have to come up with something different.”

Teacher – “So what you want is for me to test your child to find out if they know and understand more and have more skills and show you the results”

Dragon – “Exactly”

Teacher – “But don’t you understand that this runs completely counter to what we are trying do with children – and will undermine the positive benefits of formative assessment”

Dragon – “Not at all – I’m convinced by the logic and rhetoric of formative assessment – it’s just that I don’t understand you’re reluctance to collect the hard data”

Teacher – “If you focus on the “hard numbers” then I will just shift my attention to achieving the results and pay no attention to the processes of teaching and learning. In other words I’ll give you you’re numbers but it will corrupt what we’re doing”

Dragon – “So what you are really saying is that you don’t actually believe in your product – it won’t sell – it won’t generate the numbers? In that case Im afraid I won’t invest”

My apologies if this seems a bit long winded but this seems to get to the heart of the matter. My point is that we need to have faith in what we are doing but realise that there is a need to gather the numbers – through summative assessment. It’s part of the intellectual process, the science of teaching, the business of reflective practice.

If we don’t then it will only be a few short years before some reactionary force uses another conflicting set of ideas and rhetoric to shift our practice in an opposite direction.

The point is that we must engage with teachers to develop an understanding that the “numbers” are necessary – but that if they use the “numbers” and continue to develop their practice that they will move so far beyond any “accountability as a line of conseqeunce ” that their practice will be liberated, rewarding and self-sustaining. In such an environment the head teacher would be well advised to relinquish control because it would be teachers who would interrogate the data imbued with a hunger to improve their practice.

I’d like to work in a school like that – what’s more I’d like my child to be taught in a school like that.

Fast Tracking in East Lothian?

East Renfrewshire Council has taken the decision to start Standard Grade courses – or their equivalent – in Second year as opposed to Third Year.

According to Ian Fraser, the Head of Education, the
fast-track move was being considered for two reasons.

“One is the increased attainment and better skills and abilities of pupils coming from primary schools into secondary and they are performing at a higher level than previously,” he said.

“Secondly, it's trying to look at the top end of the system – the gold standard, the higher grade awards – and trying to give youngsters more time to prepare for Highers.

I have to admit to having a certain sympathy for both of these perspectives. Pupils are performing better then previously in primary schools and the one year dash for highers is very demanding.

However, I’m worried about the encroachment of certificated courses further down the secondary school. Certification only serves to reinforce the separation between subjects; teachers get locked into the syllabus; and the demands of the “exam” become the driving force behind the learning experience.

How does all this fit with the curriculum for excellence? Teachers in East Lothian, in common with other teachers in Scotland, are doing some wonderful things in relation to formative assessment. They are throwing off the shackles of a limited curriculum model and exploring teaching approaches which excite and engage children.

I’d like to suggest there an alternative to the “fast track” approach for secondary schools.

So what do I think?

  • .Children need time to grow up without the pressure of certification
  • Teachers need to work more closely with other subject teachers
  • We should be using these two years to build upon children’s primary experiences and make best use of graduate specialists
  • We should be focusing upon helping children to develop the four capacities which underpin the curriculum for excellence

These capacities being:

  • Effective contributors
  • Successful learners
  • Confident individuals
  • Responsible citizens

I do not believe that the certificated curriculum is best suited to enabling these capacities to be developed.

If we aren’t going to adopt the “fast-track” model then an alternative to the current model must be developed. The status quo is not an alternative.

Some options:

Many schools are now operating subject rotation e.g. instead of doing three subjects a week, such as Geography, History and Modern Studies for one period each – pupils get three periods of one of the subjects for one third of the year before they move on to the next subject. – this doesn’t really make any difference aside from reducing the number of teachers a pupil sees in a week.

Group common subject together and get one teacher to teach the common course, e.g. once again using the social subjects model a social subjects course is developed and taught by only one teacher – this could require a modern studies teacher to teach the geography element of the course – not really making best use of the subject expertise nor challenging the notion that the S1/2 curriculum is fairly low level stuff.

How about this?

Restructure the curriculum around the four capacities. For example – there are approximately 16 subjects in S1/2; split these subjects into four groups for S1 and a different group of four for S2.

Let’s say we our split goes:

Group 1 History ;Geography ;Craft and Design

Group2Music; Art; Modern Studies; RME

Group 3 Science; PSE; Maths; ICT

Group 4 Languages; English; PE; Home Ec

Now we’ll not worry if anything’s missing here – it’s just for fun. Then each subject group is then allocated a particular capacity to develop, e.g. Group 1 could focus upon developing confident individuals.

Each subject would reflect upon their existing curriculum and look at how it might reinforce the chosen capacity with examples – (it would not necessitate a complete course rewrite!) but particularly think abut the means of delivery to hopefully develop that particular capacity.

In addition to the relevant capacity each student would have to complete a project which linked all the subjects together whilst perhaps having a real focus on one of the areas. So if I was a pupil in Group 1 I might want to take one of the history topics a little further – let’s say Second World War (history) – within my project I would have to make significant reference to Music, science and language. The project would be marked by the main project focus teacher, in this case history. I would have to consult with my subject teachers about my project and use their expertise to develop my project. I would have the option of completing my project with a partner or partners

The academic year would be split up into four parts, with students having to complete four projects in the course of the year. Each project would be commented (an overall mark would not be given) upon by a main subject teacher – the focus of the comments would be upon the quality of the research, the structure of the project and originality of the links – no doubt we can come up with better criteria than that.

Hopefully, in the course of the year, the quality of projects would improve. Project work would mainly be done at home but up to 25% of teaching time in a ¼ year period might be given over to project work. Projects would make significant use of
ICT – probably being completed on a student’s virtual space.

Each year the subject groupings would be rearranged to enable different teachers to work together.

So what might be the outcomes of such a flight of fancy?

  1. Teachers would be working much more closely together.
  2. The four capacities would take a central place in the curriculum.
  3. We would have built a very strong foundation for certificated courses
  4. Children would have some opportunity to follow their interests
  5. Homework would be of real relevance to each child
  6. We would build upon children’s primary experiences
  7. We would make appropriate use of teacher expertise
  8. Children would see inter-connections between subjects and their learning
  9. Children could work at their own level – and extend themselves
  10. Learning could be collaborative
  11. Teacher's have to work much more creatively and with a focus on education as opposed to certification

One obvious difficulty with this proposal is that it doesn't do anything about the one year dash for the “gold standard” Higher. I'd have to agree with this but I think if we were able to develop more effective learners in S1 and S2 then they should be able to handle higher courses more successfully. I also think we need to start to see preparation for Higher as a three year process, i.e. linking the S3/4 curricular experience with the S5 experience in a more coherent manner. I also think we need to realise that to develop a curriculum only to best serve the more academic end of the school then we are hardly meeting the needs of the lowest attaining 20%.

I'd welcome comments in this work in progress.

I found an interesting letter recently
“From the Principal” (not unconnected from this debate)


7.30-9.00 Preparation for Education Committee and correspondence.

9.00 – 9.30 Quick impromptu meeting with Kay Affleck who is our Integration Information Officer. Kay is going to take responsibility for a new section of the site –
Additional Support Needs

10.00-12.00 Council Committee for Education. These are formal meetings where the officers, namely Alan Blackie and myself present a series of reports to the elected members about a range of issues. Today covered: 4 inspection reports; East Linton catchment area review; early years review; educational maintenance allowances; schools meals and free school meal entitlement; and college/school links.

12.30pm Out to a secondary school to meet a headteacher with Fraser Parkinson regarding a pupil who had been excluded and who the school were unhappy about taking back. We had an excellent meeting where we explored the notion of ownership and proper multi-agency support. We have agreed that the student will return to the school once a proper multi-agency plan has been put in place. Our collective problem is what happens when the “worst” student in the schol is permanently excluded? The reality is that another student simply moves up the ranking and takes their place as the “worst” and the only recourse to inappropriate behaviour is another permanent exclusion.

The challenge for us all to face up to is: Why do we want to keep such kids in school? Is it to comply with legislation? – don't think so – Is it to make our statistics look good? – nope – Is it to try to do something to improve society? – well although this sounds pretty grand I think it must be close to what should be driving us. I can't help thinking that if we really take on this idea about cluster collective responsibility – where all groups share responsibility – that we at least have a chance to make a difference. But there again I am a hopeless idealist!!

2.00-4.15pm Emergency Alert Training – this is an on-line system which is about to go live. It will allow the various agencies to communicate effectively in the case of a major emergency.

4.30pm -5.45 Back to the office . Joined in an excellent discussion between Ruth Munro and Rob Lewis – one of Management Information Team about how we intend to collect, collate and present 5-14 data. Ruth has picked up on work done by Angus Council assisted by Tony Conroy (LTS) where schools will set targets based upon actual students in their schools – as opposed to picking them out of thin air. The system will work by a teacher stating where students are in, lets day P2. They are then asked to estimate how many of the same class will ahve acheived the same level by P3. This will give a much more realistic picture of where schools are in terms of attainment. We are also going to consider creating comparator groups of schools within the authority, small and large and split by low FME and high FME. Should prove interesting.

5-14 assessment

8.30 am Met Clare O’Sullevan, the consultant helping the department with its restructuring process. Alan Ross joined us for the first 45 minutes. I get the feeling we are beginnning to make some real progress. Undoubtedly there are going to have to be some key decisions made in the next few weeks but the signs are looking positive that we will create something that will enable us all to carry out responsibilities more effectively

11.00am Out to Brunton Hall to watch 350 P1s take part in a musical performance in conjunction with the RSNO. I have to admit to being intrigued as to how so many five year olds would respond to such a challenge. In the event it was a great success and I thought the sympathetic way in which the professional musicians worked with the children was a great credit to the initiative. It just goes to show that we should have high expectations for our chiildren and not be afraid to take on such ambitious projects.

Back to the office for a meeting with Helen McMillan and Pauline Homer about the impact of the proposed cut in their budget. I am distressed about this situation and I'm looking at ways in which we can try to reinstate this funding. I'm going out with Pauline on Thursday afternoon to look at a couple of child care and out of school clubs we are running.

Straight out of here to a meeting of the 3-14 Assessment Group. This proved to be a very productive meeting with a couple of key ideas being generated. Firstly, we will be looking at two standardised tests for our P4 cohort. The two options are NFER and the MIDYIS equivalent for that age group. We will make two presentations at the next HT meeting scheduled for the 25th January and make a decision there.

The second idea was in relation to the external moderation of 5-14 results. We started off with one thing and by the end of the discussion had shaped up something which might just work. The basic concept will involve six schools (4 primary and 2 secondary) being selected at random to partciapate in the exercise. We will focus on moderating one particular curricular area, probably writing in the first instance. A group of students will be chosen, at random, from a particular year group, e.g P3 in primary and S1 in seondary. Their work would packaged up and sent into the department. A group of teachers and department staff (probably no more than 4) would meet for a couple of days and review the material. Where ther is an apparent discrepancy in a schools massemment it would be taken up by the appropriate education officer but in the main we would be looking at the level of consistency across the authority. At the same time the exercise gives confidence that levsl of attainment are reliable – someting which noone of us are particularly confident of at the moment.

Met with an HT after the meeting then worked on a cluster working paper before tomorrow's meeting of the primary/secondary executive.

What do you make of the following?



Current cluster practice is characterised, to a greater or lesser extent, by the following:

Schools within a cluster tend to operate discretely more frequently than they do in partnership

There is a tendency to perceive schools to be in competition with each other

Cluster meetings often lack focus

Clusters are seen by some as being peripheral to their core business

Clusters are not seen to be providing a proper interface between the schools and the department

Schools rarely take collective responsibility for all of the children in the cluster

Cluster representation on authority groups is often ad hoc or not present


We propose that future cluster practice should be characterised by:






CONSISTENCY: There will be an expectation that there will be some consistency of practice within a cluster and between clusters. The drive for that consistency should be led by a commitment to provide the best quality of learning experience for every child in our care, as opposed to a slavish adherence to uniformity for its own sake.

CONTINUITY: There will be a need to ensure continuity of learning experience within a cluster, particularly at key transitions, e.g. nursery to infant; infant to upper primary; primary to lower secondary and lower secondary to upper secondary.

COLLEGIALITY: For clusters to operate successfully there is a need to recognisethe importance of personal commitment to the process. Cluster effectiveness will be compromised if any one Headteacher gives a half-hearted contribution. Collegiality should be encouraged amongst all staff within a cluster.

CREATIVITY: Clusters will be encouraged to adopt an enterprising approach towards their practice. Ideas should be generated, applied and shared at cluster level. In this way we will promote a learning approach across the authority with clusters developing and sharing new solutions rather than waiting for solutions or good ideas to be generated from the centre.

COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY: This is arguably the greatest challenge to our existing practice. Current practice reinforces the separation between schools, even in the same cluster. Headteachers are often isolated and carry the burden of responsibility for the all that goes on in their school. We are seeking to change this practice by encouraging Headteachers to see themselves as having a shared responsibility for every child in their cluster. By sharing practice, problems and solutions we hope to generate a more sustainable model which will capitalise on the strengths of co-operative practice.