I was recently in Saltoun Primary School where I observed a P1 – P3 class being taught writing. The teacher used a storybag – an idea that she had picked up from this book:

The teacher had filled a rucksack with items and then told the pupils to imagine that they had found it outside the school. The children then used this a stimulus to write a story – and what stories they wrote.

The process started with each child removing an item from the bag and using these as clues they tried to work out to whom the bag might belong.  They then moved into talking partners and then modelled their story on a board. 

The succes criteria were: a main character; interesting begining; exciting middle; an end; capital letters and full stops.

Spelling was not an issue in this lesson – although the teacher has high expectations about spelling when it is a key learning outcome.  In this environment the children were released to use their imagination and not scared to particpate –

here’s an outcome from a P2 boy:

I went on to a P4-P7 class who were working on podcasting some poetry – very engaged.  I came cross this piece of writing by a P6 boy who had written a story in response to stimulus from a painting a book:

The stimulus:

School Visits – revisited

Made it to the October break! – so I thought it might be an idea to reflect upon the school visits which are forming such an important (and enjoyable) part of my working week.

I think it’s fair to say that these visits have created something of stir in some schools, with questions being raised about whether or not they are acceptable. I understand such disquiet – particularly as teachers will inevitably link such visits to notions of competency and personal focus. I also think it’s fair to say that most schools have actually appreciated the visits – once they have been concluded – and the fact that I am focusing upon what I said I would.

Hopefully, as trust builds up people will begin to see it for what is is intended to be, i.e:

a personal statement from the Head of Education about how central the learning and teaching and process is to education in East Lothian;
the highlighting of the importance of the connection between teacher intention and learning task;
a learning experience for me which I can use to influence policy and practice across the authority; and
an example to other educational leaders in East Lothian to adopt a similar focus.

So far I’ve visited 3 secondary schools and 10 primary schools and hope to complete the rest of the schools in this cycle before the end of term.

The random selction of which classes I will visit has – I think – been a success – as all too often it’s only those, and such as those, to whom someone such as myself has been directed.  In large schools I’ve adopted an alphabetical approach and just asked the headteacher to send me to the classes of teachers whose surname begins with a certain letter. In other situations I’ve asked to see particular areas of the curriculum such as writing or art. Of course in small schools, such as Dirleton – I watched every teacher!

So what are my reflections?

Firstly, I didn’t realise I had so much to learn about the learning and teaching process. I previously thought I knew what was going on in our schools with my pop in visits and pastoral chats – it’s obvious to me now that without such a classroom focus that visits are virtually meaningless, aside from showing that you care,  maintaining a profile, and gaining an “impression” of what a school is like.

The simple – yet remarkably revealing focus – that I’m taking in classes means that I must remain disciplined (don’t start to let my attention wander onto other areas), self-questioning (don’t let my own preconceptions interfere with what I’m watching) and open to trying to understand what it is the teacher is doing in a broader context (don’t see the task which is happening in that lesson in isolation).

It’s almost as if this period is more of personal learning phase to provide a context which will help me to draw some conclusions about what it is I’m seeing in schools.

One thing has become abundantly clear to me over the last few weeks – we have wonderful teachers in our schools! The creativity, passion and commitment to what they are doing with young people is a common feature of every school I’ve visited. What it has also confirmed for me is that teaching is an incredibly sophisticated skill, with common characteristics, which can be broken down, analysed and learned.

I know there’s a huge mystique surrounding the teaching process, e.g “it’s a craft”, “it’s a personal thing”; “it’s about the personality of the teacher” – but in lesson after lesson I’ve seen teachers having very clear learning intentions and linking them to suitable and challenging tasks – where that happens – without exception – the children are engaged and producing high quality work, whilst the teacher is gaining real job satisfaction.

Over the course of the next few months I hope to be able to develop my insight about what it is about the link between a learning intention and a learning task that leads to effective learning. My hope is that colleagues will continue to help in shaping that understanding and contributing to this dialogue.

Could I take this opportunity to thank every teacher who has allowed me into their classroom – it’s been a privilege.

Oh – I should have mentioned – I don’t think there’s a day that’s gone by when I haven’t used something that I’ve seen in schools in connection with other parts of my job – i.e. budgeting, staffing, policy development, etc. – so in that sense it already having an impact.

Catching a glimpse

I visited St Martin’s Primary school watched active learning in action when I observed a P1 class doing maths. I watched spellbound as the children showed incredible enthusiasm, confidence and focus towards the tasks set by their teacher Cath Nairn.

Cath explained how the pupils were probably three to four weeks ahead of where they would normally be for this time in P1 – so what’s the difference for the children? “Children don’t have to worry about writing it on a piece of paper” “It takes away the stumbling block of getting a mark on a piece of paper” “They’re not worried about making a mistake – it liberates them to engage and enjoy learning maths”


What’s the difference for the teacher? – “You get to see children making progress on a day-to-day basis, where you can set challenges to continually extend their learning”

The photographs show some of the activities that the pupils were engaged in during the lesson – which link to the plan on the last photograph.

Coin recognition

Cathy used the Interactive Whiteboard to great effect with small group of pupils where they dragged and dropped coins to make sums of different values.

Shopping lists with tally marks

When I spoke to the children they all used the same word – “FUN”

Cath stressed how important it was that she was able to build upon the work undertaken in the nursery. Cath doesn’t spend as much time marking jotters but she does spend more time planning what the children will be doing next – I would suggest that this time well spent.

Weekly plan

Daily plan

Out of the mouths of babes!!!


During my visit to Preston Lodge this morning I asked a class why they throught they were able to produce such outstanding work in the Art Department – and believe me it is outstanding.

The answer blew me away!!

“They take what we know and help us learn more” Natalie

Jim Cram, the Principal Teacher, explained that the teachers in the department try to give the learners space to work things out for themselves and to act as “waiters” – there to serve and anticipate the next step. I gave this more thought on the way home and I quite like this analogy – the (good) waiter provides a menu, provides advice and guidance, provides the tools and resources with which to eat, anticipates the needs of the diner throughout the meal and try to remain as unobtrusive as possible. As ever with metaphors – the more you strecth it the weaker it gets but I certainly know what Jim meant – and, what’s more, so did the class.

As Jim pointed out such a process involves significant preparation but the rewards are worth it – from what I saw today they certainly are.

Public Service

It’s accepted practice to give anyone who works for local authorities abuse and criticism.

The picture of petty bureaucrats and people who are not good enough to get jobs in the “real world” is rarely challenged.

When I met recently with David Spilsbury, our Head of Corporate Finance, to discuss issues relating to the education budget I asked him why he did his job – given the amount of stick it generates.  David’s answer was disarmingly simple and sincere – he is committed to the notion of public service. I think this is actually more common than people might imagine and runs through the core of the majority of people with whom I work, and with whom I come into contact during my day-to-day work.

David agreed to come out to a school with me today to look at how his work in managing the council’s finances is translated into public service at the sharp end. We both really enjoyed our time at Preston Lodge and I hope it helped him to understand the challenges we face in education whilst we were also able to gain an insight into the many competing demands for a limited council budget.

I will certainly challenge anyone in the future who casually lobs a criticism the way of our finance colleagues without trying to see the bigger picture.

Independence, Continuity and Confidence

I was in Macmerry Primary School this morning observing a P1/2 class and a P3/4 class.

I watched active learning  in action when I observed the infant class work in three groups on reading and writing. I was really impressed by the ability of the pupils to work independently with real quality, whilst the teacher worked with another group. When they finished their task they went to the play area and chose what they wanted to do next – building with blocks, painting, drawing letters in sand, wieghing and measuring, playing in the ‘house’ area – and many other options. The pupils were confident about making their own decisions and focused on the task they selected. Such independence doesn’t just happen – many of the class were in P1, i.e. only a few weeks into term – yet they had become accustomed to clear and consistent expectations of their teacher.

It was interesting when I went into the P3/4 class that I saw a similar level of independence and expectations from the teacher. It’s this level of consistency and continuity which makes it easy for pupils.

This set me to thinking about the levels of independence we offer older pupils. We have this tendency to think that independent working is something we should work towards in later secondary years – when in actual fact children have been used to working this way in their first two years of primary – or even earlier. It also struck me that there is a huge amount to be gained from having consistent expectations and ways of working in classes – so many difficulties arise when a pupil has to work within different parameters as they move from one classroom to another – does it have to be this way?

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 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.

Knowing our school

There are three points of focus that I’m taking during my school visit programme:

  1. Self-evaluation;
  2. Distributive Leadership; and
  3. Learning tasks.

I’m going out to Kingsmeadow Primary School tomorrow. HT Donald McGillivray sent me a paper which outlines how they know their school and how leadership is distributed right across the school.

It’s really helpful to get this kind of detail.

Self Evaluation – How I Know My School


  • SINATRA planning tool– regular access and written comments
  • Teacher’s PET tracking tool – regular access and feedback at…..
  • Target meetings and mgt/staff discussions. Review of assessment info.
  • Team leaders report back at…..
  • Management meetings – fortnightly
  • Staff Meetings – monthly
  • Support staff meetings
  • ASL review meetings: attend, read minutes,etc
  • Jotter moderation and comment
  • Surveys – pupils, staff, parents
  • Peer and management classroom observation and….
  • ED&R – tying the above into the process
  • Area meetings – participation/minutes
  • Involvement with parents via Parent Council and informally
  • Involvement in curriculum development – take the lead, eg, “Radiowaves.”
  • Annual whole school audit
  • Main author of development plan, drawing together from staff input and other sources
  • Ensuring continuous review of development plan via set-piece meetings and other activities contained within CAT calendar
  • Management team class involvement: timetabled, other than observation
  • Walking about and being seen


Leadership – How Distributive Leadership is Developed and Promoted


  • Staff encouraged to, and do, take leadership roles in development plan priorities
  • “Team Leaders” a feature at each stage, with PTs having a major leadership role for their year group/area
  • Staff   rotate chair all staff meetings and have right of access to agenda setting
  • Area meetings on CAT calendar allow staff to share issues and resolve problems by themselves
  • Collegiate planning at each stage is firmly embedded as a means of developing collective responsibility for learning and teaching [on CAT calendar]
  • School Advisory Group, made up from staff representing each stage, manage all ASL resources
  • Staff  have complete management of the school fund
  •  Staff all have their own budget for purchasing educational materials[ not texts]
  • Peer observations are a feature where staff agree a focus for class observation with another teacher who then carries this out and gives feedback
  • Timetabling for the session  is devolved to a staff group….with…..
  • RCCT being agreed and delivered within this same context




  • Prefect system in place, covering: playground, wet weather, library, computer suite,etc
  • PLPs allow some pupil control over their own learning
  • Existence of School Parliament, Executive Group, Pupil Council, Green Team, Health Group – pupils actively participate in all of these.  Membership via electoral process
  • School Bank run by pupils
  • House system in place with House Captains elected by pupils
  • Reward system that allows house points to be accumulated …and, also….
  • Personal success celebrated via award of certificates  – weekly, termly sessionally
  • Development of an enterprising culture via much of the above, as well as curricular, class-based activities that promote enterprise
  • Pupils run assemblies under the direction of the teacher
  • Golden Rules allow children to develop responsibility for self and others
  • Inclusion allows opportunities for pupils to be responsible for supporting /assisting other children [ wheelchair bound, Down’s Syndrome, etc]
  • Children teach other children [Radiowaves,etc] in order to pass on information/skills
  • In class, pupil peer/pair assessment is developing

Reverse Observation?

Following one of my recent posts about political scrutiny I was thinking about whether or not we could expose ourselves to further scrutiny.

What the Best Leaders Do to Help Their Organizations Survive and Thrive

I was further provoked in this area when listening to Professor Michael Fullan during yesterday’s Scottish Learning Festival  where he was talking about one of his Six Secrets of Change. Michael Fullan has had a significant impact upon my own thinking over the last 12 years – although I have to admit to finding some of his Secrets being “reheated” ideas from other people – but synthesising these ideas is never a waste of time – particularly if some people are coming to them for the first time.

The secret he “revealed” was “Transparency Rules”. As he talked about the importance of being open to scrutiny I scribbled “reverse observation”.

During this year I’m visiting three schools each week focussing upon the quality of the learning task set by the teacher. Although these visits are announced the week before, the actual classrooms I visit are completely random. My idea – or offer – is to invite any teacher in East Lothian to reciprocate and come and observe me for one day.  The person – who would be drawn at random (assuming there might be more than one volunteer) would come into observe me working for a full day.  I would not know when they were coming in and the visit would be co-ordinated by our Staff Development Team. The person would arrive in my office at the beginning of the day and shadow me for the rest of the day. They would then write up an observation report which I would post on this Learning Log.

So – what do you think – would anybody be interested?

Being prepared to be “unprepared”

One of the challenges which teachers face if they are going to involve pupils in co-creating the curriculum is how it fits with the traditional ideas about lesson planning.

Good planning is often regarded as a prerequisite for “good” teaching – that logic therefore leads one to believe that “more” planning results in even better teaching. The result can be lessons which are planned down to the last detail – the problem, however, is that this often leads to the teacher taking total control and leaving nothing to chance.

In a way this takes me back to when I used to teach dance as a PE teacher.

Of all the subjects, courses or activities that I’ve ever taught, dance is the one which has provided me with the most satisfaction. When I lectured at PE College I used to see students teaching a dance which they had taken an inordinate amount of time to create. They had chosen the music, identified the theme, created the steps and worked out the choreography. As I watched lesson after lesson I saw kids – particularly boys turned off and failing.

When I returned to schools, after three years, I vowed to try out a much more open and inclusive aproach. I would therefore go into a class with a box of CDs and start with a blank sheet.  We picked the music together, worked out the theme, then in pairs and groups started to work out the steps. It was my job to knit this all together and give it some shape.  At appropriate times I would introduce some ideas which the pupils would try out and use. The quality would be shaped by demonstrating what people were doing – it came from the class. As we went on I would further develop the pupils’ movement vocabulary as and when necessary.

The results – if I say so myself – were remarkable  and can still raise the hairs on the back of my neck. It was an exceptionally challenging yet exciting way to teach which really extended and tested my ability as a teacher.

I realise that such an approach can’t be used in every lesson – but I do believe that the type of planning that we engage in should enable us to give over some of the responsibility for what we do in class over to the learners. The reality is that we (teachers) are conditioned to take charge.

I’m not suggesting here that teachers walk into a lesson with no idea about what they are going to do and make it up on the spot – but I am suggesting that they plan lessons which can take on a shape that takes account of the pupils knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm for learning.


Even teachers who don’t engage in regular formal lesson preparation – and there are-some – will often, ironically, conform to the “control” method – where they are the sole drivers of the learning process.