My Day at Elgin High
Yesterday, I was in Elgin on a job-swap with the head teacher at Elgin High School, this year's BBC Scotland SoundTown school. I have to admit I had a restless night in the hotel, mainly because the wind was howling against my bedroom window, so I arrived at the school at half-past eight somewhat bleary-eyed. The Headmaster, Andy Simpson, had arranged a full day of meetings and duties for me, but we'd also arranged to make two appearances on Radio Scotland. Here's how it went.
0830: I join Andy Simpson and his senior management team for a short meeting to run through the timetable for the day.
0845: A bell rings and I join Andy in the corridor as the pupils start to flood through the doors. Andy explains that he likes to stay visible during school hours as much as he can. 'Hat off, hoods down' he tells a few children.
0855. As registration classes begin, I join Andy as he darts in and out of various rooms, asking pupils if they have distributed the newsletter he sent home with them earlier in the week. He praises those classes who have done the job well and tries to cajole the others. Class sizes here seem quite small compared to my memories of school.
0900. Back in Andy's office where he sifts through his correspondence with his admin assistant. He is introducing a new behaviour policy which seems to involve a certain amount of paperwork. There are questions about how this paperwork will be dealt with.
0930. Into the SoundTown studio, not far from Andy's Office. We're linked up with the MacAulay & Co show where Fred and co-host Alison Craig are into a discussion on the demise of Golden Wonder crisps. Fred thanks Andy for 'taking Jeff off our hands for a day' and asks me if I prefer potato heads or nik-naks. I mutter something about smokey bacon crisps. Amazing how the time flies when you're on the radio.
09.45. We meet a group of fourth year pupils to talk about revision plans. I launch into a story about my own school days and about how I always put off revision until the last moment. I'm not sure Andy finds this very helpful.
10.15. We visit a class of third year pupils who are studying administration and have been asked to draft a memo with suggestions on how to improve the school's reception desk. Having arrived at that very desk this morning I am full of suggestions and walk around the class offering them to the pupils. With one group of girls I get drawn into a discussion about River City, mobile phones and MP3 players. Just like when I was at school. Always getting distracted.
10.40 The bell rings for morning break and we're on duty in the dining hall. It's busy, noisy but there's no trouble. The main crisis revolves around a fallen litter bin.
10.55. We meet a group of fifth year pupils who are studying for Highers. These seem to be the brightest in the school and Andy explains that he has to spend time with these students so they know they are valued, otherwise his time can be dominated by pupils who demand more of his attention. These pupils are certainly among the most self-confident I have met and one is prepared to challenge Andy on a study-technique book he has recommended. They also tell me that have outgrown the BBC's Bitesize website and are now using a revision website developed by Heriot-Watt University.
11.50 Another senior management meeting. As in other schools, Andy is trying to balance his finances while implementing new agreements on class sizes and the number of hours teachers should spend in the classroom. It's not easy, but what comes across is that the staff feel strongly that pupils should be offered as many choices as possible. It's heartening to hear how often the discussion comes back to the needs of the children.
12.45. Lunch and one of the perks of the job is that you can skip the queue and get your lunch before the pupils. 'As long as you ask nicely', Andy reminds me.
I go for split-pea soup and a sandwich which we take back to the staff-room so that we can spend some time with the teachers. Andy is still using a system of pigeon-holes to distribute information to his staff. I tell him to stick with that and to beware of the tyranny of e-mails. In the staff room there is some talk about the plans to build a new super-school to replace Elgin High and Elgin Academy. I've yet to meet anyone who thinks this is a good idea.
1.15. We head for a meeting of the student representative council which is chaired by one of the senior pupils. Andy takes the minutes. Again there is discussion of the super-school. The pupils agree to make their own views known to Moray Council. They decide to put together a short video to illustrate their points.
1.45. I sit in on a one-to-one meeting Andy has with one of his history teachers.
Again there is discussion about the new behaviour policy and the likely paperwork involved. It seems detentions and exclusions are the main sanctions teachers use when dealing with bad behaviour. I can't think of anything worse than being a teacher in charge of a detention class.
2.35. We visit Kestrel House, this is a special needs unit attached to the main school. There' is a wonderful atmosphere as we watch the children finish their woodwork projects then Andy gives a short talk about the school rules. He tells me he does this to make sure the Kestrel children feel included in the running of the school. As far as I can see, each child has a support worker or assistant and I'm told that senior pupils from another school also volunteer their time to help out at Kestrel House. As we leave I ask the children if they enjoy school and there's a round of cheers and a show of happy hands.
3.00 A reporter and photographer from the Northern Scot newspaper arrive to interview us about the swap. The Northern Scot has been very supportive of the SoundTown project. I launch into a spiel about Doctor Who, saying I feel like a time-traveller because when you meet schoolchildren you get a glimpse of Scotland's future. The reporter nods encouragingly and writes it down. Then Andy and I are asked to walk down the corridor so they can take a photograph.
3.40. Back in the SoundTown studio for a live interview on the Tom Morton show. Tom sounds outraged when I tell him that most of the students I met today don't listen to the radio.
4.00. I get to leave, but I know Andy stays on for at least another hour and then goes home to write various reports. I've really enjoyed the day and now have an inkling of what it's like to manage a school. There are also a lot of parallels with my own job, which I'm sure Andy will notice when he swaps roles with me on the 1st February.