Thursday, 18 December 2008

Shared heads - a step too far?

As I was driving home earlier tonight a headline on the news captured my attention. Borders Council has decided that, in order to save money, among other measures, it will reduce the number of Headteacher posts. In future, it is proposed, schools will share heads. I am a keen supporter of sharing leadership but is this approach to leadership based on sound business and educational principles or is it driven by a need to cut costs?

''Our new structures as they evolve and settle down will provide schools with greater development capacity.

"This will help us build on our strengths and enable us to maximise on the benefits from the Curriculum for Excellence."

''... the controversial proposal for shared headships could operate successfully but needed to be "monitored and managed effectively".

How many more people will be employed to monitor and manage headteachers? Where is the evidence that supports the move for sharing headteachers across schools as being an effective one for pupils? Does a model of sharing heads across schools actually deliver the goods?

Monday, 1 December 2008


Yesterday afternoon, when I was in the garden with my two daughters, Jenny drew our attention to a sight that has always make me stop what I'm doing and gaze in amazement at the skies above. I am referring to the inspiring sight that is a skein of geese. Seeing the geese in their familiar 'V' formation reminded me of a lecture delivered by Dr Richard Holloway at last Summer's international conference in Edinburgh on School Leadership, in which he suggested that humans had much to learn from nature as far as good examples of leadership is concerned. I hadn't really thought about his analogy, and what as leaders we can learn from geese until yesterday.

The first lesson is: work as a team. Geese migrate long distances flying in V-formation. This formation results in reduced wind resistance, which allows the whole flock to add around 70 percent greater flying range than if each bird flew alone. Geese find out quickly that it pays handsomely to be team players. Second, wise leadership: when the leader at the apex of the V gets tired, it is relieved by another goose. Leaders rotate, empower, delegate, and even step down when it's in the best interest of the team. How often do we see this taking place among organisational leaders? Wise leaders ensure that their followers are well trained and developed in order to achieve true empowerment and smooth succession processes. Third, humane behaviour: if a goose drops to the ground when it gets hurt or sick, two of its colleagues go down with it to take care of it until it either gets healthier or dies. In this fast-paced and competitive age, how often do we see managers going out of their way to help colleagues who are in trouble? I am in no doubt that in organisations, morale, productivity, and loyalty increase when employees look after each other and are treated humanely.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

School of scottish studies

One of the really exciting developments at the school this year is our work with the School of Scottish Studies, which is part of Edinburgh University. In addition to gaining access to an aladdin's cave of resources for our staff and pupils, we are now working closely with university staff in training our pupils to become field researchers for the university. It is our intention that pupils will research the history of our local area by interviewing friends and relatives who have knowledge of our area spanning the past fifty years. This material will then be passed on to the university to add to the archives in the School of Scottish Studies. In doing this, pupils will develop their own research skills, develop their knowledge and understanding of our local area and contribute a wealth of material to archives that will be available to future generations. Pupils are ideally suited to speak to parents and grandparents to capture their memories of life in Edinburgh in days gone by. In particular, I am looking forward to learning about the history of mining and of some of the characters who contributed to making this part of Edinburgh such an exciting and diverse area to live and work in.

Friday, 17 October 2008


At morning break today, I thanked staff for their support and loyalty throughout the past term and chose this poem to draw attention to the wonderful work we do and to emphasise the importance of teamwork when working with children.


I dreamed I stood in a studio
And watched two sculptors there,
The clay they used was a young child’s mind
And they fashioned it with care.

One was a teacher:
the tools she used were books and music and art;
One was a parent
With a guiding hand and gentle loving heart.

And when at last their work was done,
They were proud of what they had wrought.
For the things they had worked into the child
Could never be sold or bought!

And each agreed she would have failed
if she had worked alone.
For behind the parent stood the school,
and behind the teacher stood the home!

By Cleo V. Swarat

Does anyone else have examples of poetry they have used with staff or pupils in this way?

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Other learning logs

When the kids are safely (and quietly!) tucked away in bed, and I've done my homework for the following day, I enjoy having a look round some of the other Learning Logs in the education world. Don Ledingham's is a really interesting and thought provoking log. So also is the Learning Log by Mark Walker, a school Principal from Australia. I really liked the material on 'Walkthroughs' - the name speaks for itself. I'm going to take some of his points on board and try them out in my own school in the next few weeks. Here is a sample clip (wait a few moments for loading) about 'Walkthroughs' in secondary schools.

I see no reason why 'walkthroughs' can not become an integral part of our school's self-evaluation process. Why should 'walkthroughs' be restricted to senior staff? Why not encourage all staff to get involved; particularly in the dialogue with colleagues about what we've seen? Watch this space!

Last week of term

The last week of term is very busy as usual. Throughout this week we have our Book Week. Yesterday, Tuesday, we had an enterprise day for all pupils in S1. Today we had assemblies, taken by jointly by police and the fire service, to educate our younger pupils about the safe and legal handling of fireworks. Tomorrow evening, we have the second of our 50 anniversary events, our very own 'L' factor. We can no longer call it 'X' factor for commercial reasons.

Book week was organised by Sharron Brown, our tireless librarian. A range of activities are taking place throughout the week involving all of our pupils on the theme of our 50 anniversary. A poetry tree, visits from authors and senior pupils dressed as their favourite characters are examples of the activities on offer.

Our enterprise day was organised by Ms Mathie, our enterprise coordinator. All S1 pupils were involved at some point during the day. Pupils were divided into teams and tasked with writing and producing a book. Each team was 'supported' by an adviser. We are grateful to staff from Lothian and Borders police and Standard Life who spent the day with us, offering their experience and expertise to highly motivated and enthusiastic pupils. The standard of books produced was outstanding!

On Tuesday of this week I met with our School's senior Quality Improvement Officer, Sheena Liddell. We had a very full and in-depth discussion about our continuing progress in regard to exam results as a school. For some unknown reason, the boys at Liberton High School buck the trend across the country as far as Writing and Maths is concerned. Over the past three years, our boys have performed much better than girls in both Maths and Writing. At present I do not know why this is but, over the coming weeks, I intend to look further into this. When Friday afternoon arrives, all of our pupils and staff will begin a well deserved holiday. For my part, I'm off on a family holiday to enjoy some sun, before we settle in for, what I hope will be a short winter.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Strike day

It's been a while since I wrote about 'a day at the office' so here goes. Today was the second of two days of strike action by several non-teaching unions. Following a risk assessment and discussion with my senior leadership team, I decided that the school would open for pupils in S4, 5 and 6 only.

I got up at around 6 am, and following a hearty breakfast, I got into school for 7.30 to open the school building along with our senior depute, Drew Macrae. The task of opening the building is usually carried out by our Janitors but as they were all on strike this task falls to the headteacher as an official 'keyholder' for the building. As usual, some staff were already in the car park raring to get in and prepare lessons for the day.

The day ran as smoothly as I would have hoped. In the afternoon, we even managed to interview and appoint a PT of mathematics. All the students throughout the day were brilliant; I am really impressed at how they have matured into such responsible young adults. On a day such as this you really appreciate the support of all your pupils and staff, particularly the principal teachers. We are fortunate to have a superb group of staff at Liberton High.

At the end of the day, assisted by my hardworking and loyal SLT, we ensured that the building was secure before setting the alarm and locking the building.

Reflecting on the day, I was once again, reminded of how important our non-teaching colleagues are in the smooth running of the school. It's often said that you don't appreciate someone until they're not there. Without their input many really important services just don't happen. We coped with one day, but I would not like to be without key staff for longer. I hope that a resolution to the dispute on pay can be found quickly; all staff deserve to draw salaries that reflect today's cost of living. Importantly, all of our pupils need to be in school, taking advantage of the first class education on offer.

Monday, 15 September 2008

A fascinating day out

On Saturday I did something I haven't done for at least 10 years. Along with my wee brother and nephew I visited Ibrox to see Rangers take on the mighty Kilmarnock. From my point of view, things looked very rosy indeed at the halfway stage. Thanks to an uncharacteristic blunder by MacGregor, Killie reached half-time with a fragile, but slender lead. Thanks however to their striking talisman, aka Boyd, Rangers came through comfortably in the end to secure the three points and retain pole position in the league. Thereafter it was onto the underground and off to the centre of Glasgow in a 'Rangers pub' to join the post-match revelries. In order to protect my real allegiances I found myself listening intently whilst one very animated little man clad in red, white and blue, recounted with (disheartening) glee how much he had enjoyed his plundering visit to Parkhead only two weeks ago. My out-of-tune accompaniment of Simply The Best could easily have blown my cover. At one stage I found myself clapping a a flute band from a local lodge as they were escorted up and down past our hostelry by Strathclyde's finest. When, at one point in the conversation, mention was made of Larrson, something about his legitimacy, I found it difficult not to suggest who was the finest player to play in Glasgow in the past decade.

Following a superb curry, the latter part of the Saturday evening was spent in the Park Bar. There I met several who I went to school with many years ago. The most famous of these was Malcolm Jones (Runrig guitarist), who, along with Callum Iain MacCorquodale (also from North Uist) kept a packed venue singing, tapping and dancing until the wee small hours.

As I watched the game on Saturday, mesmerised by the touchline antics of the managers on view, I reflected on what I, as a school leader, could learn from these icons. I will come back to this in a later post!

Thursday, 11 September 2008


I am delighted to note that attendance rates and punctuality have been much improved since we resumed this term. In addition to an increased focus across the entire school on the importance of perfect attendance we also restructured our tutor groups when we resumed after the summer. After some resistance from pupils this change appears to have gone down well. It is really encouraging to see older pupils looking after our younger charges. In some instances I have witnessed younger pupils showing senior pupils what our standards should be!

I received an email yesterday from Iain Hutchison (PT Guidance) to tell me that we are currently processing 53 university applications for S6 pupils. This compares rather favourably with the 8 we were processing at the same stage in 2004. Well done to pupils parents and staff, who working together, have shown what can be achieved if we all raise our expectations!

Friday, 5 September 2008

New Term and a new year ahead.

New year is always a time for reflection and making resolutions about things we want to improve on. This is also true of the new term which began in August.

As always, it's been a very busy and hectic start to another term. Two days in-service gave us the perfect opportunity to ease ourselves in and make the necessary arrangement for the term ahead. After a seven week break, staff and pupils are refreshed and ready. Given the superb results achieved by many of our students it was great to start to term on such a positive note.
In the year ahead a continuing focus for us will be raising expectations for all our pupils. I am convinced that we need to keep raising the bar as our school continues to go from strength to strength.

A main focus for us will be in improving attendance across the school. During the summer all parents had a chance to respond to a questionnaire I sent out seeking their views on setting targets for pupil attendance. Though some parents baulked at setting a threshold for all pupils at 95%, below which, repeating the year or, in the case of senior pupils, not being presented for some exams, will, I am convinced, change many people's views on the importance of attending school. In the next few weeks, following discussion with pupils and colleagues I will firm up our plans in this area.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Last day of term

One normally associates the last day of term with lots of smiling faces and talk of holiday adventures to come. That was also the case for us on Friday 30 June, but it was also tinged with sadness as we said our fond farewells to several colleagues, including 5 of our maths teachers. Among those who left us were Stewart Gibson and Joyce Knox, who together had experienced a total of 72 years as maths teachers. Both have worked hard over the years and deserve a long and happy retirement and the opportunity to spend lots of time with their families.

Also leaving us on Friday were Iain Major (English dept), Angus MacWhinnie (Maths dept) and Tim Ledger (PT Maths). All go on to other posts in teaching; Iain in the private sector, Angus in Dublin and Tim to a Maths PT post at Perth Grammar. Our three probationers also finished with us on Friday. Lisa Mackay (History) starts at Beeslack in August and Isla Ross (PE) flies off to Milan to pursue a PE post in an international school. Teresa Mayer (Maths) is undecided about her next post.

We wish all these staff the very best for the future.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Townies go to see the cows

'Dear All, it is that time of year again when we take the townies out to look at the cows and feed them all for nothing in the Food Hall.'(Extract from an email from Norah Watson, PT of HE, to all staff earlier this week.)

Today, I had the pleasure of accompanying 45 of our pupils and four of my colleagues to the Royal Highland show at Ingliston in the outskirts of Edinburgh. The weather was very kind and the whole experience was just wonderful.

Highlights of the day for me included:

  • Positive feedback from all pupils
  • Seeing all the livestock – reminiscences of my crofting upbringing!
  • Wonderful food samples available in food hall
  • Meeting former pupils who had pursued a career in farming.

Thanks to Mrs Watson for organising a wonderful educational experience for all of us. I am tempted to go back on Sunday with my girls so that they can experience the magic of the Highland Show as we all did today.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

School praised in Scottish Parliament!

Last week's prizegiving ceremony, with guest speaker/presenter Matthew MacIver (CBE), Chief Executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, was a roaring success. Over 100 pupils received prizes for achievements ranging from sporting prowess to academic excellence. I must say I was really proud to see so many youngsters receive their awards with such big grins on their faces.

Our local MSP, Mike Pringle was one of several special guests at last weeks prizegiving. I was so pleased to hear today that Mike had spoken so positively of his experience at our prizegiving and our school's achievements during parliamentary discussion on Youth Justice. Onwards and upwards for Liberton High! Click on the following link (Liberton High progress) to read Mike Pringle's contribution to the debate.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

HMIe report

Our follow through report was published today. I am delighted with the progress we have made as a school. All those associated with the school, including staff, parents and pupils deserve enormous praise for having rolled up the sleeves and getting on with the job of taking our school forward. Of course, progress in recent years is just a beginning. We must now ensure that we continue to go from strength to strength. WE will do this if we continue to work together as a community.

''It takes a village to raise a child'' (African proverb)

As we begin our celebrations to mark our 50 anniversary, the timing of such a positive report could not have been better!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Pupil attendance 3

In a recent conversation with a friend who works in the 'real world', as he often reminds me, I was shocked to learn that the reason that 80% of under 18s lose their employment is because of poor timekeeping and/or attendance. Can we as schools do something about this so that our young people are better prepared for life beyond school?

At tonight's parent council meeting we had opportunity to further explore how we will tackle absenteeism in the coming session. There is a view that we should apply employment -type standards to our expectations of pupils in regard to attendance; particularly those in the senior school. To that end, I propose, for next session, that we should set attendance targets for all pupils. Throughout the session pupils will be reminded about their attendance targets so that areas of concern are quickly brought to each pupil's attention. Parents will also need to be alerted where concerns arise.

What do we do with pupils whose attendance falls below expected standards? Do we allocate additional resources from an already overstretched budget to try and further support youngsters and families? Should pupils be asked to repeat a year if their attendance is very poor? Should pupils with very poor attendance be presented for exams?

In addition to target setting for attendance and punctuality, we are also proposing to move to vertical tutor groups. I.e. tutor groups comprised of pupils from S1 to S6. From our discussions so far it strikes me that there are many advantages to arranging registration classes in this way. For example, this will allow us to approach peer mentoring in a different way to previous attempts. Additionally, new S1 pupils will have 'buddies' that will continue with them well beyond the first few days at High School.

I look forward to consulting and listening to pupils and parents in the next few weeks.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Pupil attendance 2

Throughout the past session a working group, chaired by Iain Stewart (PT Guidance), has been looking at what we can do at Liberton High to improve pupil attendance. In addition to reflecting on our current practices, members of the group have also visited other schools. Based on one such visit we are considering changing the structure of tutor groups. In the past, we have had groups of 25-30 pupils all the same age. What we are proposing to change to is groups of between 20 and 25 of pupils ranging from S1 through to S6 within house groups. There are pros and cons to doing this but some of the advantages include:

  • Breaking up peer groups who have developed bad timekeeping habits and have security in their groups
  • Giving senior pupils the responsibility of looking after and supporting younger pupils
  • Further developing buddying opportunities

In the past few weeks staff and pupils have had the opportunity to comment on the proposals; on Tuesday night those who are at the Parent Council meeting will have the opportunity to air their views.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Pupil attendance 1

Three weeks ago I was astonished, in truth offended, when we received a call from a parent, in response to a truancy call from our automated parent alert technology, to inform us that her daughter would be off school for the next two weeks as they were going to take advantage of a last minute deal for a holiday in Malta. The fact that the girl concerned was in S3 and in the middle of her S3 exams mattered not a jot. I readily acknowledge that it has been a long winter but I despair when parents choose to take their children off school for 'casual' holidays.

One of the priorities for us in the coming months will be to reduce pupil absenteeism. Currently at Liberton High School, the average attendance is around 90%. In terms of days per pupil this amounts to almost twenty days lost each year. This was one of the main areas for action identified by HMIe in 2006, but, disappointingly, our attendance figures have barely improved over the past two years. In life beyond school, whether it is in a place of further learning or employment, absences of this magnitude would not be tolerated. Why then should we accept this in schools? Should we direct additional (limited) resources to 'supporting' families where attendance is a problem?

The reasons for such high levels of absence aren't easily explained. In truth, neither is it clear as to what actions we should take as a school to impact positively on this area of concern. One thing, however, is very clear to me: The status quo is not an option. Over the coming year I am determined that we will tackle this area with vigour. In the next few posts I intend to develop further what we plan to do in this area. Suggestions from others will be welcomed.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Learning theories

I recently came across a really interesting online discussion about attachment and Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Definitely worth a read! Don Ledingham's blog is really excellent.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Learning from and with others

One of the areas of practice in our school that I discussed in detail with HMIe, during their recent visit, was that of peer observation and learning from others. At Liberton, as happens at many other schools, peer observation is now integral to our CPD programme and how we evaluate our own practice. Peer observation (aka 'sharing classroom experiences') serves many purposes but a key outcome for me is the opportunity to observe staff in the classroom and to identify and celebrate best practices. Staff, generally, don't like being praised publicly and being singled out. How can we overcome this?

The most important part of the observation experience is undoubtedly the professional dialogue that takes place afterwards. When this is done well, both staff involved engage in reflection and dialogue. I am convinced that if we are to continue to develop as a school we must aim to further develop further means of learning from each other. During this coming session it is our intention to develop a primary/secondary reciprocal visits programme. I think this will be really useful in informing our thinking on where we want to go with Curriculum for Excellence and also exploring how Aifl motivated classroom pedagogy has evolved in the different sectors. I look forward to exploring this area further in later posts.

Visit to General Assembly

Along with a few pupils and members of the chaplaincy team I was really proud today to be invited to the General assembly of the Church of Scotland to witness our pupils being awarded the Stevenson prize for religious observance. This is the first time this prize has been awarded so it was really great to be the first secondary school recipient of the award. The prize recognises the incredible input from our chaplaincy team who work in conjunction with our RME department to deliver a first class religious education experience to all our pupils.

The afternoon started off with a lunch in the company of delegates in the hall at St Columba's church. After that we all went off to the General Assembly building at the top of the mound. I must say this was a quite incredible experience. To be in this awe inspiring building and to witness just some of the Assembly proceedings was amazing. Having won this prize a real challenge for the school will now be to consider how we can further develop religious observance and education in our school. The £500 we won today will certainly help.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Independent learning

Earlir this week we decided that it was time to remove the stabilisers from our daughters' bikes. I have to admit that I was rather hesitant to do this. I simply didn't believe they were ready. How wrong I was.

Within 24 hours, after umpteen scrapes and bumps, both girls had mastered the art of balancing and were cycling round the garden as if they had been doing so for years.

Reflecting on what had happened, I feel that the difficulty I had experienced as a child in learning to ride a bike had significantly influenced what I believed my own kids would be capable of. My expectations of my daughters were much lower that they ought to have been. This has really made me think and appreciate how much more difficult it can be to engage educationally with children whose parents had a less than positive school experience. Undoubtedly for me, raising the expectations of all who are associated with my school will be crucial if we are to continue to make progress on our journey to excellence. I also need to think further about how we can remove the 'stabilisers' that can make our pupils so dependent on others and miss out on the really deep learning that takes place when you take control of your own learning.

Friday, 9 May 2008

The fear of failure

Despite Monday being a holiday, this has been an exceptionally busy week. In addition to the perennial pressures and organisational challenges associated with a busy exam schedule, the school is also buzzing with all the usual activities one would expect. For example, today we had a large number of our S2 pupils visiting a local university to find out more about the opportunities available to school leavers. At Liberton High we encourage all of our pupils to aim to achieve University level qualifications. There is nothing to be ashamed about if they don't succeed. However, I do have a real issue with anyone who does not try. So often, in schools, as in life in general, it is people's fear of failure that is the biggest barrier to success. Schools should strive to encourage risk taking; if we don't I would question whether we are adequately preparing our young people for an increasingly competitive life beyond school.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

English Exams

Today was the biggest of the Standard Grade exams this year and was the culmination of of many years hard work. Some will say that the Standard Grade course is a two year course but I much prefer to consider it as an eleven year course. If we do otherwise then surely we undervalue the work done throughout Primary School and in years one and two in Secondary.

Almost inevitably, the day of the English Standard Grade exam is sunny and hot. Such a contrast to the long, wet and cold winter we have just had. When it comes to deliberating about whether to support the proposal to have a winter diet of exams, it will do no harm to think about the benefits that we might gain if our teenagers are able to enjoy more of the May sunshine than they presently do.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

League Tables

It seems to me that during this past week league tables, allegedly depicting performance and achievement, across a range of activities, have dominated the newspapers I choose to read. Throughout the week, as we have throughout the season, the back pages of most newspapers keep us posted as to how our footballing teams are progressing. Earlier this week we had the publication of school league tables based on pass rates in exams. Today, a headline in the Times, forewarns me that tomorrow's Times will have a league table showing our country's highest earners over the past year. I can hardly wait.

As I drove back home from chaufeuring my daughters to their ballet classes I was reflecting on when a league table might actually be useful and when it is not. In the context of football, where winning the league is the ultimate prize, there is no doubt in my mind that the publication of the league table is essential and useful. Football teams are in direct competition with each other and rivalry between opposing teams is what their marketing and survival depends on. League tables to show who is the richest is entertaining and probably sells newspapers but is really no more than useless gossip. In the context of schools though, I have a big issue with putting schools in league tables, based on data that is fundamentally flawed. It can be argued that:

  • League tables for schools take no account of pupils' starting points or progress made since arriving at that school.
  • League tables take no account of social factors that may impact on pupil performance.
  • Schools who have entrance exams or use other means of selecting their intake (E.g. catchment area)tend to do better.
  • Senior (S5 and S6) school exam pass rate calculations are based on the roll when that group of pupils was in S4. In the context of Liberton High School, where more that 50% choose to leave school at the end of S4, it is hugely misleading to compare our exam pass rate with schools where staying on rates are close to 90%.
In trying to maximise opportunity for all of our learners, should the emphasis be on putting schools in direct competition with each other? Is there more to be gained by scrapping our league table mentality and developing a genuine culture of collaboration and partnership between genuinely comprehensive schools?

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Edinburgh's best kept secret?

Whenever I tell someone that my daughter attends a Gaelic medium school in the centre of Edinburgh the response, invariably, is one of surprise. That a gaelic medium school should exist, indeed thrive, so far from the traditional gaelic heartland catches people completely unaware. The children at the school are taught exclusively through the medium of gaelic. A number of the children have parents who can converse with them in gaelic but not all. Our older daughter is now in Primary three and perfectly bilingual in Gaelic and English. She loves school; I am convinced she would attend at weekends given the opportunity!

One of the fears that prospective parents have about enrolling their child at the school is that education exclusively through Gaelic, in a predominantly English based society, will inhibit the development of their child's English language development. Amazingly, the converse is true. The gaelic medium pupils, after a short intensive course in English at the end of P3, not only demonstrate that they have caught up with their monolingual peers, but have in fact overtaken them. I believe that this unexpected anomaly is also evident in other countries where more than one language is practised.

As parents, we are absolutely delighted with the quality of experience on offer at Tollcross Primary School. If Gaelic is to survive, Education as our daughter experiences, is going to be pivotal. An t-ionnsachadh og, an t-ionnsachadh boidheach!

Monday, 14 April 2008

Staffing update

It's that time of year again when, as a headteacher, I am working hard with colleagues in trying to get our staffing organised for next session.

Last week we were able to appoint a Biology teacher to Liberton HS to replace Ms Sarwar who left us at the February break. I was really impressed at the quality of the three candidates we shortlisted; I would have been delighted to have welcomed any one of them onto our staff. For the first time in my experience we observed all the applicants teaching a class. ( I was so pleased to see that only one pupils across three classes needed to borrow a pencil. This level of preparedness, as many who know me, is something I value highly). This approach has been used by privated schools for years. I foresee that this will be standard practice at Liberton High from now on.

Of course, as most will know, our staffing complement is based on pupil numbers and, as our roll is projected to fall to just under 700 next session, this means that we have to declare some staff surplus. I have to say that is one of the least pleasant parts of my job. As someone who had direct experience of being declared surplus (Firrhill HS 1986) I fully understand and can sympathise with those in this situation and the feelings associated with being in this position. Not surprisingly, I think the longer a member of staff has been at a school, the harder it can be to uproot and move elsewhere. On a positive note I am delighted to say that both staff involved have been highly professional in their response and I hope they can be quickly and painlessly relocated to another Edinburgh school.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Back to business

It was back to school yesterday after a relaxing 2 week Easter vacation. It's amazing how differently we all approach matters when we are refreshed and relaxed. The term that has just passed was a very stressful and busy one for staff at Liberton High. Not only did staff and pupils have the usual pressures of SQA deadlines and folio completion to contend with but we also had our follow through inspection with HMIe. I found the whole HMIe experience to be quite stressful; I know that colleagues hold a similar view. One of the areas I have been reflecting on recently, particularly, since the tragic death of a HT colleague in the borders, is how schools, local authorities and HMIe can more effectively work together to manage school evaluation. I am convinced that self-evaluation (i.e. evaluation carried out by school staff within the school as part of an on-going improvement process) is the most important and effective means to improving educational outcomes for learners. What are the arguments for external moderation? Why do the Finnish and Irish education systems, which have a very different moderation model to ours, regularly outperform us in the various international comparisons?

Friday, 21 March 2008

Poem to adopted chinese daughters

It's Easter holiday time and opportunity for me to spend lots of quality time with our two lovely daughters! I came across this very moving poem today whilst browsing a website for adopted kids with our own adopted daughters Jenny and Lucy.

Once there were two women
who never knew each other.
One you do not remember,
the other you call Mother.

Two different lives shaped to make you one.
One became your guiding star;
the other became your sun.

The first one gave you life,
the second taught you to live it.

The first gave you a need for love;
the second was there to give it.

One gave you a body
the other helped you to grow.

One gave you a talent,
the other taught you what you know.

One gave you emotions,
the other calmed your fears.

One saw your first sweet smile,
the other dried your tears.

One found a home for you
that she could not provide.

The other prayed for a child;
her hope was not denied.

nd now you ask me,
through your tears,
the age-old question
unanswered through the years.
This place or your birth place –
which are you a daughter of?
Both of them my darling –
and two different kinds of love. (Anon)


Tuesday, 18 March 2008

South Uist Tragedy

I'm sure that many who read today's media coverage of the tragic death of Kaylee McIntosh, the 14 year old girl cadet from Aberdeenshire, will have felt moved when they learned the detail of how this tragedy occurred. The incident has added poignancy for me as the tragedy happened a short distance from where I grew up. As a child, growing up in North Uist, I was acutely aware of the dangers associated with water, both in the numerous lochs that cover vast areas of the islands and the coastline that can be as treacherous as it is beautiful. As a native of the island of North Uist, I often witnessed 'incomers' taking unecessary and unplanned risks that could have all too easily had serious consequences. As a headteacher of a school in the city of Edinburgh I receive and approve many requests to take pupils on excursions. I hope that generations of youngsters are able to enjoy the richness of experiences that excursions in the outdoors have to offer. What happened to Kaylee was tragic; we now know that there were major failings in safety. The way ahead for us must be to learn from what happened here and to ensure that future excursions of this nature are properly conducted. We must guard against becoming too frightened to take risks.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Feeling good

Now that the 'excitement' of the HMIe visit is over it was back to business as usual this week. Each day this week we had assemblies for the various year groups to give them a flavour of what progress we have made in the past few years. It was great to be able to tell the pupils that we had made huge progress over the past two years. There is a real feel good factor and pride developing among pupils and staff and deservedly so.

With years 1-3 I took the opportunity to emphasise the importance of respect as one of our core values. A main point to emphasise from me was that respect is fundamental to all the relationships in our school community.

In the coming months we need to engage in discussion about what our 'next steps' as a school are going to be. What should we do in the next year(s) in order to ensure that we continue to improve?

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Parent Council

Tonight's Parent Council was positive as usual. It was great to be able to share the general feedback from the HMIe visit with all present. Apart from HMIe business, I updated the meeting on a number of other important issues in my Headteacher's report. This included:

  • Staffing
  • Roll projection for September 2008
  • Finance
Other areas raised in general discussion included a really good discussion on exam leave. Parents were supportive of not giving pupils exam leave for prelims. A query was raised about exam leave for S3 sitting exams this year. It was suggested that S3 pupils taking exams this summer (some are taking as many as 4) should not get exam leave as they would miss out on valuable teaching in other subjects. Instead, it was suggested, for the duration of the exam period,that S3 pupils taking exams this summer, should not be given homework for other subjects. This will be raised at our PTs' meeting tomorrow.

A main topic for discussion this evening was how we can increase levels of engagement between parents and school. I made the point that parents show high levels of loyalty to the school but a disappointing level of engagement. For example, the turnout at last week's S4 parents' night was around 40%. This is less than half the percentage attendance a similar meeting at Dunbar Grammar School (Thanks to Paul Rafaelli for sharing this figure with us through his blog!) At our next meeting on Tuesday 29 April it was agreed that we would spend a chunk of time looking at how we can make parents' evenings more attractive to parents. Any suggestions of good practice in this area will be gratefully received.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

One day to go!

A team from HMIe is with us on Thursday and Friday of this week for our follow through inspection. We had five areas to address from the previous visit in 2006 over the past two years.

In summary, they were:

  • Positive Behaviours
  • Tracking and Monitoring
  • Pupil attendance
  • Learning and teaching
  • Self evaluation

I hope that over the next few days we will be able to demonstrate the amount of progress we have made over the past two years in each of these areas. Our staff has been magnificent in how they have responded to the challenge that was laid before us.

Report on how we fared to follow at a later stage.

Monday, 25 February 2008

HTs' briefing/training

I attended a really helpful and interesting session for headteachers this afternoon at Goodtrees community centre. The meeting began with a welcome from David Wright (Neighbourhood manager) and a brief update on where we are as an Authority in our cost cutting/restructuring programme. Next up was a brief summary on School Safety from PC Steve McGill. It was great to learn that there is a sharp downward trend across our area of Edinburgh in terms of incidences of vandalism. This shows what can be achieved when the relevant groups work together in a cohesive and coordinated manner.

'Closing the gap' was the second item of the agenda and this was a presentation from Jamie Heatherington who works in strategic planning with Edinburgh council. Jamie was keen that each of us thinks about what we can do in our different contexts to 'close the gap'. This is an issue that I am really interested in, particularly, given the very diverse intake we have at Liberton High. The notion of a 'gap' is an interesting one and can mean different things to different people.

The highlight of the afternoon, for me, was a presentation from Christine Knight (HMIe district Inspector) on using 'How Good is our School 3'. I very much liked her practical approach to using the QIs and generally keeping things simple. I agree with her when she says that too many schools and departments can fall into the trap of trying to do too much at once. I look forward to working with Christine again on Friday when she and HMIe colleagues join us for our follow through inspection.

The afternoon closed with two excellent examples of good practice on School Self Evaluation from Rose Islambolipoor (Gracemount Primary School) and Stephen Phee (St Thomas of Aquin's inspection.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Castro blogs ok!

I learned this morning that 'El Comandante' Fidel Castro has been blogging for the last year or so. Writing in today's 'Times' Moises Naim suggests that 'El Comandante' does what bloggers do: he comments on the news, chastises enemies (Bush, Aznar), extols friends or rambles on subjects he cares about (sport and politics). I have tried to find a link to his blog but, thus far, my search has been in vain. I am curious to see what the man who has been the most enduring figure in world politics throughout my lifetime writes and says. Will he offer an alternative perspective on Leadership that we, in the corridors of Education, can all learn from? What can we learn from a man who has, allegedly, survived over 600 assassination attempts and successfully defended his island fortress against several invasion attempts; most notably the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961. ''Bloggers know that one of the risks is inadvertently to expose too much amount themselves''. I know that I grapple with this too in my ramblings. Fortunately, at least until now, I have yet to experience an assassination attempt. Oh, and I almost forgot to say what a lovely kind and generous man Fidel is.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Active learning

At Liberton in recent months I have had discussions with several colleagues about 'Active Learning'. What I have discovered is that active learning can mean different things to different people. Generally, we tend to associate active learning with being physically active but being cognitively active is surely just as important and effective as a means of learning.

I came across this article on-line recently - I think it is a useful discussion starter about active learning and may be used by me at a future in-service.

Explanation of the Components

This model suggests that all learning activities involve some kind of experience or some kind of dialogue. The two main kinds of dialogue are "Dialogue with Self" and "Dialogue with Others." The two main kinds of experience are "Observing" and "Doing."

Dialogue with Self:

This is what happens when a learner thinks reflectively about a topic, i.e., they ask themselves what they think or should think, what they feel about the topic, etc. This is "thinking about my own thinking," but it addresses a broader array of questions than just cognitive concerns. A teacher can ask students, on a small scale, to keep a journal for a course, or, on a larger scale, to develop a learning portfolio. In either case, students could write about what they are learning, how they are learning, what role this knowledge or learning plays in their own life, how this makes them feel, etc.

Dialogue with Others:

This can and does come in many forms. In traditional teaching, when students read a textbook or listen to a lecture, they are "listening to" another person (teacher, book author). This can perhaps be viewed as "partial dialogue" but it is limited because there is no back-and-forth exchange. A much more dynamic and active form of dialogue occurs when a teacher creates an intense small group discussion on a topic. Sometimes teachers can also find creative ways to involve students in dialogue situations with people other than students (e.g., practitioners, experts), either in class or outside of class. Whoever the dialogue is with, it might be done live, in writing, or by email.


This occurs whenever a learner watches or listens to someone else "Doing" something that is related to what they are learning about. This might be such things as observing one's teacher do something (e.g., "This is how I critique a novel."), listening to other professionals perform (e.g., musicians), or observing the phenomena being studied (natural, social, or cultural). The act of observing may be "direct" or "vicarious." A direct observation means the learner is observing the real action, directly; a vicarious observation is observing a simulation of the real action. For example, a direct observation of poverty might be for the learner to actually go to where low income people are living and working, and spend some time observing life there. A vicarious or indirect observation of the same topic might be to watch a movie involving poor people or to read stories written by or about them.


This refers to any learning activity where the learner actually does something: design a reservoir dam (engineering), conduct a high school band (music education), design and/or conduct an experiment (natural and social sciences), critique an argument or piece of writing (the humanities), investigate local historical resources(history), make an oral presentation (communication), etc.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Inservice day

I was really chuffed at the end of yesterday's in-service training day for staff, when several sought me out to say how much they had enjoyed the day. How often do you hear staff say that they enjoyed a whole staff training day? It was certainly a first for me!

We will of course look at the evaluations and feedback in more detail but I thought I would take a few minutes to recap on what really was a most stimulating and thought provoking day. We started off at 0830 with refreshments and bacon rolls for everyone. The first item on the day's programme was mine gave me the opportunity to update staff on progress with our Improvement Plan and to say a little about what we need to focus on in the lead up to next weeks HMIe visit. I was pleased to say how far we are on wit
h this session's plan and to see how positive staff feel about next week. Next Carol Brown (DHT) demonstrated electronic period by period registration ahead of today's launch. This was followed by Carol briefing staff on recent changes to child protection guidelines.
Following a break for tea/coffee and croissants, an hour and a half in departments and a sumptuous buffet lunch (provided by staff on a 'bring a plate' basis) we moved into the afternoon session.

The afternoon session
(superbly organised by DHTs David Russell and Drew Macrae)was focussed on learning and teaching. The opportunity was taken to showcase some of the best practices at Liberton High. All staff were encouraged to share and steal good practices from around the school. Each department was requested to contribute at least one item each to a display of materials arranged around the hall. Pleasingly, many departments elected to contribute several items. The hall was an Aladdin's cave of teaching and learning treasures.

  • We had three different departments showing us how they used Studywiz, an online learning environment, to engage students in on-line learning. (I now know much more about Henry Moore, Sculpting and Maquettes!).
  • Social subjects staff showed us how they had developed some innovative teaching approaches in line with those recommended in the Assessment is for Learning (Aifl) initiative.
  • Members of the PE department demonstrated the use of 'Dartfish'. This is software that is used to edit and analyse images and footage gained through video photography.

  • To close the day's proceedings Graham Crawford gave us a very stimulating overview of how Science Teaching at Liberton has been influenced by research and developments in thinking skills.
What really pleased me most about the day was that all of our presenters and contributors were from our own school. The amount of talent and range of expertise on our staff was really inspiring and gives me great hope and confidence for the future.

Bil Gates Speech to High School in USA

Bill Gates allegedly, (see comment below) recently gave a speech at a High School (in the USA) about 11 things they did not and will not learn in school. He talks about how feel-good, politically correct teachings created a generation of kids with no concept of reality and how this concept set them up for failure in the real world.

Rule 1: Life is not fair - get used to it!

Rule 2: The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will NOT make £60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping - they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into terms. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.

If you can read this - Thank a teacher!

Sunday, 17 February 2008

February break

It's back to work tomorrow for Edinburgh teachers after a one week long February break. It was great to have a break from the work routine and to spend quality time with my own family. We spent four days in London visiting friends and taking in some of the sights during an unseasonably warm February. A particular hit with my girls was the visit to China town, still resplendent with all the decorations from the chinese new year festivities. I enjoyed the 'London eye' and the opportunity to get a bird's eye view of London. I was really impressed with the efficiency and the cleanliness of the tube system. We have an excellent bus system in Edinburgh, but I am envious of other cities that have an alternative means of getting around. Whilst on the tube at rush hour one day, I was particularly impressed by the courtesy shown by one young man who immediately stood up and offered his seat to my wife. I hadn't experienced any one doing this in many such travels on the tube over the years.

In two weeks time we welcome back HMIe. In the coming weeks I will write a bit more about my experiences of being involved with HMIe since they visited us initially in January 2006 and then again in May 2007.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Classrooom observation aka sharing classroom experiences

One of the perks of my job is being able to go and visit teachers' classrooms to see them do what teachers are best at doing - teaching pupils. Teaching and Learning is our core business and any opportunities we have to learn to do things better must be grasped with both ha
nds. One of the most effective ways to learn to be a better teacher is to observe colleagues in action. One of the lessons I saw this week was with Gill O'Connor, English department. This was a lesson you wish you could bottle and uncork to order. There were so many good practices on display that I won't embarrass Gill by mentioning them all but I feel I need to mention one. How do you get 14 year olds to not just read but become absorbed in and enthusiastic about Romeo and Juliet? Do you just read the text to them (this was my school experience) or do you compare and contrast Shakespear's use and choice of language with lyrics by Christine Aguilera? The latter approach resulted in twenty 14 year olds and me being enthralled from start to finish of what was an outstanding lesson. I will want to reflect further on how best to share this excellent practice with colleagues so that all pupils can benefit from one of the really gifted practitioners in our schools.

Scots Scientists top of the class

It was great to read in today's press that our country's scientists are generally regarded as world leaders in research. Have a look at for the report. This is really good news. As a small country, it is so encouraging to see that we are continuing a long tradition of excellence in research and development. Where would we be without pencillin, TV or pneumatic tyres? How long will be be able to lay claim to being world leaders in research? From a secondary headteacher's point of view I am very concerned at how little funding I have available to support the work that takes place at grassroots level in schools. If our universities are to maintain the status they currently enjoy, schools will need to be able to do much more in terms of nurturing and developing the talent in our ranks. We simply cannot do that on a shoe string budget. There is a real danger that we will run departments down to such an extent that it will be almost impossible to start up again, when, not if, Science, once again, becomes flavour of the month.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Chinese New Year

Along with my family and close friends, who also have two adopted Chinese daughters, I had the pleasure today of attending the Chinese New Year Celebrations at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. The performances from a range of artistes were outstanding. A particular hit with the girls were the acrobats from Mongolia. The same performers were involved with Alan Stewart and co. at the pantomime at the Kings through December and January.

The contributions made by a pipe band and a Scottish singer Tom Collins (a former pupil of mine from Porty High) really added to the occasion. It was great to see the Edinburgh Chinese community and the Scots celebrating together in style. After this, it was off to join other families from around Scotland who
have also adopted from China.

In the weeks ahead, I am keen to explore ways in which we at Liberton High can develop ways in which we can develop links with the Chinese community to further broaden our curriculum.

Thursday, 31 January 2008

You are what you eat or are you?

Secrets of … the Mediterranean Diet
A recent study has once again confirmed that people who closely follow ‘the Mediterranean Diet’ live longer than other Europeans. So what exactly is the Mediterranean diet and how does it exert this spectacular effect.
The Mediterranean diet is not a specific diet plan or diet program but a collection of eating habits that are traditionally followed by the people of the Mediterranean region. There are at least 16 countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea and food habits vary between these countries according to culture, ethnic background and religion. But there are a number of characteristics common to them all…
A high consumption of fruits, vegetables, potatoes, beans, nuts, seeds, bread and other cereals

  • Olive oil used for cooking and dressings

  • Moderate amounts of fish but little meat

  • Low to moderate amounts of full fat cheese and yogurt

  • Moderate consumption of wine, usually with meals

  • Reliance on local, seasonal, fresh produce

  • An active lifestyle

Earlier today I had a conversation with Shelagh Lee, our PT of Behaviour Support. Our discussion centred on what we could do to try and positively influence the diets of some of the youngsters whose behaviour in classrooms can sometimes create difficulties. One particular youngster we spoke about claims he needs a daily 'fix' of iron bru to get him through the day. Breakfast is non-existent; his first nutrition of the day tends to be the best part of a bottle of irn bru. I hasten to add that we stopped selling fizzy drinks at my school some years ago. Shelagh is currently working with this youngster and his family to try and change his diet and high sugar intake. I am keen to further explore how we might do this. Has anyone out there come across a school that has been successful in tackling inappropriate pupil behaviours through the diet route?

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Parent Council

Tonight was our first Parent Council meeting of 2008. Parent councils (made up of parents, staff, pupils and members of the community) came into existence on 1 August 2007. They replaced school boards.

In the case of our school we were very lucky to have had a very active and strong school board and parent teacher association (PTA). Pleasingly this has become an equally strong and supportive parent council and pta.At tonight's meeting, among other things, we talked about the impending HMIe inspection, our 50th anniversary celebrations and ways in which we can continue to develop strong relations with neighbours. 2008 promises to be another very busy and productive year at Liberton High.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Christmas Leavers

I came across an interesting article (and comments) on the perennial issue of how best to cater for Christmas Leavers on Don Ledingham's learning log. Definitely worth a read! go to Don's Learning Log

Don Ledingham is Head of Education in East Lothian.

The school leaving age regulations read as follows:

'Children may leave school once they reach their statutory school leaving date, this is dependent on date of birth. For children born between 1 March and 30 September it is 31 May of their 4th year of secondary school. For children born between 1 October and 28 February it is the last day of the December term of the school session in which they are 16.'

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Why do headteachers get paid more than other staff?

This is a question that arose this morning whilst I was chauffeuring my seven year old to her ballet class. I was in the process of trying to explain how a credit/debit card works when, out of the blue, she asked me if I got paid more than other teachers. I answered that I did get paid more, leading to the inevitable searching and innocent ''why'' that children of this age specialise in. I pondered for a few moments before answering; trying to find words and a rationale that a seven year old could understand. I have to admit that I really struggled.

Whilst adults might understand terms like 'increased responsibility', they may not necessarily agree. Do I as the ‘head’ carry more responsibility than Walter, our Head Jannie, or Liz who is in charge of our catering? Walter, at the flick of a switch, can create arctic conditions in selected parts of the school. Liz could choose to stop the daily supply of the 5oo school-made cookies thus creating near anarchic tendencies amongst hordes of hungry teenagers. Of course, there are many other examples I could draw on.

Before I could offer an answer, she suggested that headteachers attend lots more meetings than others. Perhaps, on reflection, I do merit the extra money after all.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

What makes me tick?

I am very clear in my own mind about what makes me tick. I absolutely thrive on sharing positive experiences and practices with others who are positive and, of course, learning from others. What is it that sets some people apart; able to inspire others and drive them on to higher levels of performance and achievement? Is it the passion they have for what they do? Is it simply that their enthusiasm is infectious? Is there something that can be bottled and uncorked to order? Is it something quite intangible that we can recognise and appreciate but can't really measure in an objective way?

Today I spent time with two colleagues whose enthusiasm and passion for what they do never fails to inspire me. Both perform quite different roles in the school. Firstly, I met with Gill O'Connor (Teacher o
f English) to review the work that she has been leading on the development of writing practice in our cluster of schools. Gill's enthusiasm and passion for the teaching of writing comes across so strongly. I experienced first hand why it is that so many pupils want to be in her class. I really liked the way in which Gill used her readings and reflections on the principles within 'Assessment is for Learning' to explain to me ( a scientist in a previous life) how she thought the teaching of writing should be developed. I look forward to sharing and discussing her ideas next week with my Primary Headteacher colleagues. My second such meeting of the day was with Christine Babbs. Christine is officially our school librarian but contributes so much more than this to the wider school community. For example, Christine organises the writing and production of our School Magazine, Liberton Link. At today's meeting we looked at how we might enhance the current format. We exchanged a few ides and thoughts and of course, Christine, being Christine, agreed that she would aim to have our next magazine completed and distributed by the end of February.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008


Our S4 prelim exams are now under way. This year, we decided to move the S4 diet until after Christmas following consultation with staff and pupils. To date, I am impressed at how well the vast majority of our S4 are coping with the inevitable pressures that prelims bring. We are however still at the stage where staff are more worried about the forthcoming national exams than the pupils. Those teachers out there who read my log may also be aware that there comes a point in the session when pupils become more concerned than their teachers. At that point chasing up folios, completion of homework etc becomes so much easier!

Monday, 14 January 2008

New Term

Last week, staff and pupils returned to a new term to learn that two members of staff (Mrs Reid and Mr Pretswell) had passed away in the past two weeks. Having now reflected on the events of last week I am immensely proud of how well staff and pupils coped with what was a very difficult and challenging week. The ways in which youngsters and staff supported each other made me a very proud headteacher indeed. I would also like to put on record my sincere thanks to Paul Beautyman (School Chaplain) for his enormous input to supporting our school.

As a school community we must all now endeavour to move on. We will never forget the immense contributions made by both of these very special staff.