Visit to Balwearie High School, Kirkcaldy, FIFE

By Ms Man Ching Fan Florence, HKTA The Yuen Yuen Institute No. 1 Secondary School

On 27 April 2016, we took the early morning train from Edinburgh to Kirkcaldy of Fife to visit the Belwearie High School. Mr Archie McGlynn, Founder and Director of the Hong Kong Scotland School Improvement Partnership (HKSSIP), highly recommended this school to us as it was one of the pioneers in school self-evaluation. Dr James More, Head Teacher of the Belwearie High School, gave us a very warm welcome on our arrival at the main entrance.

In Fife, the local authority provides education for pupils from the age of 3 until 18. Belwearie is a co-educational school of over one thousand students, who have a wide range of backgrounds and abilities. These students mainly came from 6 associate primary schools in the same district. Belwearie High School and these 6 primary schools work together as a cluster. They make plans for the cluster on the larger critical issues such as relationships, learning approaches, initiatives on families, support for families, and so on. For Belwearie, their plans concern the curriculum, resources, buildings, and so forth, all of which fit in with the cluster’s overall direction.

James was delighted to tell us that when Archie was the Chief Inspector of Education in Scotland, he produced the seminal guide to school self-evaluation: How good is our school? It was designed to promote effective self-evaluation as the first important stage in a process of achieving self-improvement. The fourth edition would be published in 2016 to support practitioners and school leaders at all levels to:

  • ensure educational outcomes for all learners are improving;
  • address the impact of inequity on wellbeing, learning and achievement;
  • consistently deliver high-quality learning experiences;
  • embed progression in skills for learning, life and work from 3-18;
  • further strengthen school leadership at all levels;
  • improve the quality and impact of career-long professional learning;
  • extend and deepen partnerships to improve outcomes for all learners;
  • increase learning for sustainability; and
  • tackle unnecessary bureaucracy.

James said although all of the above were important, the school should only focus on two or three major concerns every year. He also invited some young leader groups to share with us how they contributed to school improvement.

After the coffee break, we volunteered to visit a Music lesson for students with special educational needs. The lesson had already begun when we entered the room. There were 6 students, one teacher and two assistants in the room. In front of the whiteboard, there was a computer on the desk. We noticed that they were playing a game that trained their concentration. Each of them, including the adults, had to take turn to sit at the desk, listen to the rhythms and tap the keys simultaneously. The one who got the most accurate beats would get the highest score, so the students were very excited when their scores were displayed on the screen. After this session, the students put on their headphones and played the musical instrument at their own choice. While they were practising, the teacher and assistants moved around to supervise them. When I gave a thumb-up to the boy who agreed to let me put on his headphone so that I could listen to the music he played with his guitar, I could see a brilliant smile on his lovely face. These students might have some difficulties in learning but they were so lucky to have the opportunity to study in the Belwearie High School, where a lot of care, effort and resources had been put into helping them to realise their potential.

The visit to the Belwearie High School has given me some insights on school management, teaching and learning, quality assurance and professional growth:

  1. The biggest personal challenge for principals is making decisions and priorities correctly every day. Principals can have mutual support in their cluster.
  2. Senior teachers should be encouraged to drop in a lesson for 5 minutes to take the temperature frequently. More information is available than with a planned observation.
  3. The Department Heads should challenge the teacher across the whole range – high, middle and lower ability students. They should tease out information and conduct a challenging discussion after the lesson observation.
  4. A school can fly if all the teachers can have quality conversation with their students, e.g. “What a wonderful effort!” “Fabulous!” “Can you do it even better?” (Students are encouraged to do greater things.)
  5. Improve the school by looking inward (self-evaluation); outward (help from outside and support from cluster); and forward (strengths and areas for improvement).
  6. Young Leader Groups play an important role in school improvement plans, e.g. promotion of moral and civic education through a series of activities which are conducted by students.
  7. SEN students are more willing to attempt the tasks when they feel safe and respected, for example, when students as well as all the adults (teacher and the assistants) in the classroom are required to do the same tasks.