SQA (self questioning anxiety)

Unless you’ve been there I don’t think it’s possible to imagine the anxiety which teachers, principal teachers and head teachers experience at the time Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) results are published.

I’ve been in there in all three roles and now in my wider role as Head of Education.

Over my 27 years in the business I’ve experienced a wide variety of highs and lows – but it’s impossible to describe the desolation of a year when children have significantly under-performed in comparison to what you expected.

Perhaps contrary to public opinion teachers always blame themselves when this happens and the low is even more pronounced when you feel you have been working flat out through the previous year.  Then there are the other years when attainment completely outstrips your expectations and for a short time everything is rosy – this feeling lasts about a week until the new cohort starts their course.

I’m busy analysing our East Lothian SQA data at the moment and was waiting for the national results to be published today in order to get a handle on how well we had performed in comparison with national figures and our comparator authorities.

The good news is that it looks like our Standard Grade and Higher attainment has improved in comparison to both national and comparator figures. However, it’s possible to take too much gratification from how you compare against others and lose sight of the overall attainment of individual pupils in East Lothian – which, in relation to attainment, must be our point of focus.

However, I’m convinced that the positive and collaborative culture we are developing; the focus on consistently high quality learning and teaching; our application of ICT; the support systems we have for pupils with additional learning needs; the improving links between our schools and sectors; the wide range of extra-curricular opportunities on offer; the support we get from parents; our staff development programme; and the commitment from everyone who works in East Lothian education will enable us to make almost exponential progress over the next few years. What’s more I think we can have fun doing it!

School Visits 2

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post I intend to make three school visits each week in the coming session.

The focus of my visits are: leadership; self-evaluation and learning tasks.

At our Quality Improvement Group meeting this afternoon I was asked what I was looking for in relation to the last of these points of focus.

So here goes:


What is the purpose of my classroom visits? – to focus our attention upon the  selection of challenging and appropriate learning tasks by teachers in the learning and teaching process.
Why is this important?  – where children are required to undertake challenging and appropriate learning tasks the quality of their learning is significantly enhanced.
During my visits I’ll be asking:
· teachers to describe the learning task that they have set the class for that lesson.
· teachers to describe how this lesson connects with previous lessons and future lessons.
· children to tell me about their involvement in the setting of learning tasks
· children to tell me what they are doing and what they need to do to be successful in relation to the task.
During my visits I’ll be looking at:
· the level of pupil engagement in the learning task – at all ability levels within the class.
· the quality of children’s work.
· the information provided to children about the task
· the information provided to children about what a successful performance would look like.
Who will I visit?
· I would like to visit classes at random – rather than being directed to specific teachers.  On my arrival in school I will discuss with the Head Teacher which classrooms it will be appropriate for me to visit.
How many classrooms will I visit during my time in school?

· At least two – I will remain in each class for at least 20 minutes.

What feedback will I provide?

· I will write to the Head Teacher with feedback about my visit.

What will I do at the end of the year?

· I will complete a report on visits to schools and reflect upon the issues and good practice that have observed over the course of the year.

Principal Teacher Conference – some reflections


So the PT Conference is over.  How did it go?

The feedback from the 76 participants has been incredibly positive – both the formal evaluations and the verbal comments – but did it meet our objectives?

There were three key objectives of the conference:

  1. promote the concept of Principal Teachers  as leaders of learning;
  2. create, promote and extend a community of principal teachers;
  3. develop and explore a range of ideas for developing the curriculum for excellence.

I’ll post the ideas which emerged from the conference here tomorrow but I think we made significant progress towards fulfilling our objectives.

The focus on Appreciative Inquiry proved worthwhile and provided a foundation for the 24 hour programme.

People seemed to get something from my presentation on culture; accountability; seven sides of leadership; and Leading from the middle, which linked with Alison Wishart’s stimulating session on possibilities for approaching the Curriculum for Excellence.

The Engine Rooms were dynamic and although some people thought it might have been better to stay in clusters I think we just about got the balance right.

The ideas which emerged at the end of the Engine Room were better than any working group could have achieved even working over a six month period.

The last session which culminated in the Dragon’s Den seemed to be good fun and the practical ideas which cluster teams suggested were exciting and very relevant.

As for the Dragon’s Den – I’m not sure – people seemed to enjoy it but we had one comment which made me think it might have gone too far – basically the person was concerned that such an antagonistic environment did not live up to our aspirations to treat people with unconditional positive regard.  It will be interesting to hear other peoples reflections on this aspect of the programme.

Of course, the best part of the course – bar none, was the opportunity to meet colleagues and who share a real passion for their jobs – we are indeed fortunate to have such people in East Lothian.

PT Conference: entering the Dragon’s Den


We hold our Principal Teacher Conference this weekend – the theme is “Principal Teachers: Leaders of Learning”

The Saturday is going to focus upon two key ares in relation to A Curriculum for Excellence, these being “personalisation” of the curriculum and “co-creation” of the curriculum.

We intend to split the delegates into two groups who will consider use the engine room approach to identify 5 things they would do to develop “personalisation” of the curriculum and “co-creation” of the curriculum. In addition to 5 ideas people will be asked to identify 2 potential barriers in relation to each aspect.

As each of the groups move through the engine room process we will gradually narrow and refine the ideas and barriers.

Having completed this task people will be asked to get into groups of their own choice and select one of the ideas which have been identified from the engine room. Their task will be to flesh out an action plan which would allow them to translate the idea into practice. The groups will use our development plan five questions, which are: what are you going to do?; why are you going to do it?; how are you going to do it?; when are you going to do it?; and , what differnce will it make to for learners?

All these action plans in relation to personalisation and co-creation will be captured on laptops and digitally saved for future reference and distribution.

The last session will involve one member of each group/team presenting a two minute pitch to our “dragons” who will act as management, colleagues, those they line manage, parents and pupils – basically they will pull the plans to pieces! The pitch will be followed by two minutes of ‘grilling’. At the end of all of the pitches to the ‘dragons’ a winner will be announced (prize to be a bottle of champagne)

The point of this exercise is that it will share with everyone present many strategies which leaders of learning will need to develop and apply in order to translate A Curriculum for Excellence from theory into reality – it should also be great fun!!

 I’m really looking forward to the conference and hope that everybody gets something out of the event.

Diplomatic Skills – is “win win” really possible?

Diplomatic – skilled at dealing with sensitive matters or people 

I spoke to two head teachers today about how they deal with potentially difficult situations with parents. It was interesting that they both almost used exactly the same words: “If you feel you need to “win” you’ve actually lost” Their point was that we need to be sensitive about parental concerns and use a set of very sophisticated skills to allay their fears/concerns but also explain what it is we are trying to do.  However, both pointed out that these skills do not come naturally to all people but need to be learned.

In this respect I’ll never forget the lessons I learned from Ron McDonald, former depute head teacher at Earlston High School. I would see parents go into his room raging and leave with a smile on their face having been treated with courtesy, empathy and understanding.  Yet Ron was no walkover and made his own points clearly but without any pomposity or superiority which so often upsets parents.

One of the heads today used a phrase I’ve never heard before “spread breadcrumbs on the water and pan loaves will come floating back” in other words go out of your way to help, support and understand and to resolve problems – no matter how small they might seem – and you will be rewarded ten fold.  I recall watching a former colleague from my dim and distant past who adopted a quite different approach – “I am the expert” – he used to say – “if I give way to them and show weakness they will never be away from the door and walking all over us”. He was my superior and I could never get it across to him that he was making his job (and mine) even harder as parents knew he wouldn’t listen or take their concerns seriously – the outcome –  tension, poor relationships and stress within the school and the community.

I reckon I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have had a mentor like Ron McDonald – but what if you’ve never been lucky enough to see how it can be done?  If all you’ve ever known is an overly assertive and, ironically, defensive approach then how do you change your practice? In my chats today we thought that conflict resolution would be a really useful topic to explore at one of our head teacher conferences.

For Scotland’s Children – next steps

We’ve been working on a paper which explores the next steps we need to take to fulfil our obligations set out in For Scotland’s Children 2001.

The first part of that exploration is an appreciative inquiry perspective on the Integration Team.

I found it really helpful to adopt this type of thinking as opposed to focussing on any negative aspects.


Over the last six years the Integration Team has had a significant impact upon how East Lothian meets the needs of vulnerable young people. In almost every community the Team can identify key successes which include: 

  • improvements in multi-agency working;
  • support for vulnerable children and their families;
  • development of inclusive strategies;
  • positive examples of integrated pupil support systems;
  • improved pupil attainment;
  • improved pupil attendance;
  • reductions in exclusions;
  • improved outcomes for Looked After and Accommodated Children
  • successful joint training; and
  • consistent implementation of the Staged Assessment and Intervention process. 

Such has been the success of some of these developments that the Integration Team has often been perceived as an entity in its own right, with responsibility for children being “passed” to them by various agencies such as schools and health, as opposed to fulfilling the role of integrating Children’s Services and Education, where responsibility for children’s welfare is seen as shared commitment. Such a perception runs counter to the growing shared commitment by chief officers towards integrated services.  

In addition to the need to challenge the notion of the Integration Team being a separate entity there are other compelling reasons for us to develop a model which builds upon our successes, these reasons include: 

  • the mainstreaming of Changing Children’s Services Fund (CCSF);
  • the development of Integrated Pupil Support Teams in our schools;
  • the continuing evolution of our Inclusion and Equality Team;
  • closer working between education and children’s services;
  • the need to further develop a focus and locus for self evaluation;
  • the need to make efficient and targeted use of all of the resources allocated to work with disadvantaged children 

In order to develop and build upon our continuum of service to support vulnerable children and their families there is logic in developing sustainable local multi agency area teams built around our six distinct communities, or clusters of schools. 

The cluster approach, which was   approved by the Education Committee in September 2006, outlines a way of working which could also underpin the development of our continuum of service involving all agencies with a commitment to improving children’s lives through the principles of consistency; continuity; collegiality, creativity, and collective responsibility. 

Our challenge is to find a way to build upon the best examples of practice in East Lothian which depend upon true integrated working between partner agencies. 

If you have any suggestions about how we might do this please feel free to leave a comment.


Carole Craig has written extensively on Scottish people’s ability to undermine ourselves and the fact that we believe that we shouldn’t “blow our own trumpets”.

I was reminded of this today when I was speaking to one of our head teachers.  I suggested that she was always seeking to push the reasons for any success in the school to her colleagues and was not prepared to accept any of the credit.

When I acused her of being self-deprecating she said “other people are a lot better at being self-deprecating than me”

 Why do we have such a problem accepting praise? 

Adopting a Positive Perspective

I’ve been working on the Multiple Metaphor Model of change for a few weeks and was indebted to Rob Lewis who suggested some key questions which could compliment the metaphors.

Around the same time that I received Rob’s questions I came across the notion of Appreciative Inquiry. In order to try out the model I used the metaphors and some of Rob’s questions to reflect upon our current Integrated Children’s Services Plan. The difficulty I was finding was that I kept coming up with problems and areas of need. As the work went on it became more and more negative, to the point where I wondered how we could possibly put a successful change strategy together. My solution was to adopt an Appreciative Inquiry approach and consider each of the metaphors in turn but to seek three concrete examples within each which demonstated good practice, for example, using the sculpting metaphor I considered our medium – which is people, and identified these three strengths:

  1. Our colleagues are committed to providing the best possible service for children, young people and their families.
  2. Our people will continually work beyond the expected parameters to benefit children, young people and their families.
  3. Our people care about their colleagues in their immediate situation.

By considering each of the parts of the metaphor model in turn I began to develop a much more positive perspective on what we have been doing – and – more importantly – a number of things which we could build upon to imrove our service. Such an approach has the added benefit of maintaining morale, engaging postively with people and creating a culture where the focus is on success – not failure.

I don’t see this as being a “happy clappy” way of working and if we can find a way of linking this approach with the rigorous Performance Indicator model mentioned in the previous post then I’m excited by its potential.

Perhaps the greatest problem that we face – and this isn’t “Appreciative Inquiry” – is the tendency for Scots to see the downside and also to be more comfortable with that approach. I’m going to continue exploring this area over the next few months.

PS – I’ve made a start at putting together a list of related literature which people might like to dip into for additional infromation – or feel free to make addtions.