Sometimes the “under my skin” is in a bad way, in which case I would never speak about it in public (though schools probably realise that authors do talk amongst themselves, as they may well do about us…) Sometimes a school visit lingers in my mind for all the right reasons.
It was that latter sort of positive experience I had at Kyle Academy in South Ayrshire, in the West of Scotland, one cold day recently.
Kyle Academy is a large state-funded comprehensive serving a catchment that includes substantial social and economic deprivation and challenges, as well as some more financially comfortable families. It is proud to be one of Scotland’s highest achieving schools, for the last three years being well inside the top 50 of all Scottish schools as measured by pupils finishing school with five or more Highers. This academic record is really important to the school’s ethos. But equally they do a great job with those many students who, for various reasons including learning difficulties, socio-economic or social or familial struggles, find school work and ambition very difficult. In the first two years of secondary school, those students may be in a “nurture” group, “living life to the full” group or “creative minds” group. (What wonderfully positive and affirming titles those are!)
The students I spoke to were among those more vulnerable young people, many of whom are dealing with personal difficulties, and I had a strong sense that the staff genuinely cared about them and were always thinking of how to help them through a difficult stage of life so that they could achieve their best despite their disadvantages.
Before I visit a school, as I do around 50 times a year (and that’s not counting school conferences where I’m reaching many schools at once), I check out their website and stated ethos there. Then I see how it compares to what I experience during my visit. Often there’s no relation. The website is sometimes just words, not borne out by ground truth. A flowery or saccharine mission statement designed to tempt.
The Kyle Academy ethos on the website matches what I experienced on my visit. Let me give you some examples of good things I saw or experienced (bearing in mind, of course, that I don’t see everything and I need to be careful not to be like a tourist visiting a country and assuming that her one experience is paradigmatic):
- I was cared for well by the teacher in charge of my visit, who had been responsible for everything about it. She had thought through what I’d need, bought me a choice of sandwiches in case I didn’t like one of them; she gave me time on my own to recover between sessions. Her role is acting PT (Principal Teacher) of health and wellbeing so it was a good sign that she looked after mine. Those things might sound trivial – and compared to her need to educate and nurture the students they are – but they send signals. And they make me perform better.
- Staff came to my student session and they gave me truly lovely feedback afterwards. Often, staff just attend because they have to and they slip away as soon as they can. Not so here.
But how they treat me isn’t, of course, the most important thing! So let’s look at some other points:
- Not once did I hear or see anything other than genuine care in these teachers.
- The playground, which I walked through at lunchtime (using my beady eyes to judge the mood) was lively and dynamic, with what seemed like a relaxed balance of students chatting, running about, laughing. No roaring (I hate roaring!), no nastiness, no phones.
- Kyle is a popular school in terms of school sign-up, which staff put down to the nurturing ethos and excellent learning and pupil support departments. There’s great support for learning difficulties such as dyslexia.
- I also noticed a care and respect amongst the staff towards each other. There was banter between teaching staff, support staff and tech support.
- Interestingly, the school also focuses explicitly on wellbeing of staff. I think you have to do that. How can you care for someone else if you are overwhelmed, stressed or suffering yourself? If staff know that their own wellbeing is important, they will feel valued and when we feel valued we tend to do better.
- The students asked some GREAT questions! “What would you say to someone who needs to ask for advice about a disability but is afraid to hear the answer?” Just, wow. That showed that the student in question had really listened to what I’d been saying about talking to someone about whatever was bothering you.
- There were lots of excellent questions from the parents and staff, too – and a huge turnout. They even asked me to tell them about my books, which I hadn’t planned to do, and then they bought them, too. We sold out!
So, all in all, I came away feeling very positive about this school and the students and staff in it. Thank you to Debbie Wilson, acting PT Health and Wellbeing, for organising the whole thing so brilliantly. It’s not cheap having me to visit, especially such a distance, but sometimes it feels really worth it.
Testimonial from the school: “I honestly loved both your events and feel that they were both extremely insightful for both pupils and parents/ staff. The pupil session was pitched perfectly for the group you had in front of you and the strategies you gave them to deal with anxiety were easy for them to implement. I think the number of parents who bought your books shows what a positive and supportive experience it was.”
Note to other schools: If you can’t afford the cost of my visit but would like something phenomenally good value, which you can use over and over again, with every year group, forever, don’t forget my Classroom Materials.
This photo is not from Kyle Academy, as I didn’t have a photo. It’s from Dollar Academy, also in Scotland, and where I also had a really good visit!