Original paper headline: This is your captain speaking, welcome aboard Flight 90210
When 190 new S1 pupils filed into their Borders high school for the first time, they weren’t expecting to be greeted by a captain and first officer at Earlston International Airport.
Captain Michelle Strong (headteacher) and co-pilot Jill McDonald (S1-2 year head) welcomed the voyagers who were shown into a departures lounge (assembly hall), where they were checked into registration classes by the guidance teachers and escorted to gates 1A-G by cabin crew (S6 pupils). They were then given an itinerary and in-flight menu.
“Captain Strong welcomed them aboard Flight 90210 and did her usual message - try your best, we’re here to help - but with a wee slant on it,” explains depute headteacher Beverley Clark. “We wanted to try something different, so high school is seen as fun and exciting rather than scary. We had a PowerPoint of a plane taking off, representing their journey into high school. It’s cheesy, but it worked - primary schools do a tremendous job of making learning enjoyable, and in secondaries sometimes we think we’re not allowed to make learning fun, but we are.”
Earlston High has always had a strong transition process, with guidance teachers going to each primary and gathering information about every child. Miss Clark works closely with the primaries, and they wanted something creative, that would give some continuity and make the start of secondary enjoyable, “because there’s a lot of pressure with the longer day and more structure”. Going from being the biggest in a small school to the smallest in a big school can be daunting for even the most confident of children.
And so their journey began. Earlston High’s transition project spanned six weeks - the last two of P7 and the first four of S1. Pupils from the eight feeder and nine other primaries (placing requests) made a two-day visit to the high school in June, then the real work started.
Miss Clark came up with the travel theme and journeys, and each department had to decide how it would address the theme for the first month of term - all while moving into their new school building in August. Meanwhile, the P7s did some preparatory work, making passports and preparing a leaflet about their home town or village.
“It made you feel better because you weren’t being thrown in at the deep end,” explains S1 pupil Rhona Callow.
The concept of a storyline was new for many of the secondary staff, though commonly used in primary schools. “We’d never done one before,” says Neil Westgarth, principal teacher of science. “There was a mixed reception initially, but once we got thinking of ideas, everyone got excited. We came up with a story that it was the year 2051 and our planet was dying and we needed to find another one to colonise.”
His department identified what skills they wanted to cover and introduced experimentation; investigated whether a potential surrogate planet would support life; explored how they would reach their destination and what they would take; and covered other lab work and theory. With information on six habitable planets, groups of pupils had to choose one and give a presentation on their reasons.
The science staff introduced the topic during their P7 visit. “They went away really excited,” says Mr Westgarth. “We got them to bring in plastic bottles to make ‘moon rovers’ for collecting samples from the surface of planets.”
The four weeks allocated quickly turned into eight. “If pupils wanted to investigate something further, we let them go with it. Before, it was difficult to go beyond the constraints of a topic. This pushed staff and brought out creativity.”
The extension has put a little pressure on the rest of the year, but Mr Westgarth feels the whole initiative has been hugely valuable for pupils and staff alike - and in first year, you can make up a lot of time in the way you deliver things. He also anticipates it will be easier next year, because it will be more familiar.
Pupils’ comments were “overwhelmingly positive”, he says. “If they’re interested, they’re going to be far more responsive. It was nice for staff who haven’t delivered a science topic like this before.”
The pupils also “gelled” more quickly because of all the group work and enthusiasm for tasks.
The maths department planned a family holiday to Paris. Pupils had to organise and budget for travel, accommodation, food and entertainment, as well as working on the 24-hour clock, time differences and exchange rates. Its story was created around Great Uncle Willy’s will. Uncle Willy had left £5,000 to the Masson family - mum, dad and three children - and the pupils did a code-breaking exercise, using logic and problem-solving. Nicer accommodation or food meant less to spend on entertainment, or taking the ferry meant less time there.
“A lot of children find maths a bit threatening,” says Christina Fleming, who teaches one able and one less-able class (maths is set in S1). “This was something they could relate to and have opinions on. It gave them time to settle in and it gave me and the other support staff time to get to know them.”
The English department decided on “Imaginary lands” to give the children creative freedom. Judith Weston’s two classes were each split into five groups of four, and every group had to create a land, considering everything from culture, geography and history to food and drink, language, people and lifestyles, currency, society, crime and punishment, dress, gender roles, constitution and work. One group even created a national anthem.
Pupils made cultural exchanges with other lands - another group in a different class - and did written work around the project, producing stories set in their land.
“It sparked their imagination, and pretty quickly they got into the creativity of it,” says Mrs Weston. “We got some very impressive pieces of writing, with convincing settings. As a department, we were able to assess their individual presentation skills.
“I think first-years spend a lot of time worrying about where they’re going and who their friends are. Some people feel they take a step back academically, but my view is they’re having to cope with 16 teachers in a big building and big pupils, which can be daunting. It was a very positive start to the year.”
The children’s parents are also positive about the new approach. Susan and John Sharp feel it helped their son Robin to settle in. “Robin has dyslexia. We were slightly concerned in case he lost confidence going from one teacher who knew him very well to 10 or 12 teachers, but the continuity helped - the core work was the same from primary to secondary - and made it smoother for him. Because the subject matter linked through in all the classes, he could concentrate on orientating himself around the building and making friends.”
Jane Niven’s son Mark is her first child in secondary school. “I thought it was going to be a bit scary,” she admits, “but it’s been absolutely excellent. Mark has been in a class with only one other pupil from his school. Everywhere they went, they were being helped to work together and everybody was having an input. It was a good way to make friends and he’s settled in brilliantly.”
Lesley Munro, the head at Earlston and Gordon primaries, says the transition into Earlston High has always been seen as an example of good practice, “but this gave it a context and much more meaning for the children”. She points to the collaboration between P7 and high school staff. “The teachers were doing it themselves rather than it being at management level, but Beverley has been the driver of the whole thing.”
Primary pupils are used to working in a themed way, she says. “Primaries can lose them a little for the last two weeks, but they had preparatory work to do and there was real continuity across the schools.
“Developmentally, expertise has been shared both ways. It’s been such a positive experience for the kids. It’s given them the fun element and alleviated any fears they they would have about the formality of high school.”
Natasha McLaren, the P5-7 teacher at Channelkirk Primary in Oxton, agrees. “I found it great that we could collaborate, and the children felt confident that they were going up with a bit of knowledge of what they would be doing. Coming from a small village school, they can get a bit apprehensive.”
S1 pupil Mary Hall endorses this. She was “apprehensive but excited - especially in English. We did group work, so it was easy to make friends.”
“It wasn’t like staring into a textbook,” adds Rhona Callow. “I think they did it really well. I’ve made lots of friends quite easily.”
For Captain Strong, the greatest thing has been the “buzz” among pupils and teachers. “Staff were allowed autonomy. The cross-sector working and the whole atmosphere has been incredibly positive. It helped students settle more quickly than they have done in the past.”
Finance, she says, is a “biggie” for any head. “This is evidence that you can be creative and transform things without investment. Right across Scotland there is this apprehension about Curriculum for Excellence. This project allowed teachers to take risks. It’s brought learning alive.”
And it’s been a smooth take-off for all, adds Miss Clark. “You’re not going to get wads of cash thrown at you, so let’s use the skills we have as individuals. We need people to try things and support them in trying them. Learning doesn’t have to be dry.”