Case Study 22, January 2001 Click here for the next page!
Balwearie High School,
Pupils' engagement in their own learning and their empowerment through
consultation and through teaching, learning and assessment strategies

This is the second of our series of Case Studies for 2000-01 which has an overall focus on pupil participation and engagement. The first two Case Studies feature pupils' participation and involvement in their own learning - the essential base on which further developments are built. The second and third 'stages' will be illustrated by Case Studies of schools in which pupils are involved a) in the management and support systems of their schools and b) in the wider community. In this issue, Balwearie High School examines how its pupils become engaged in their own learning, both through processes of consultation and through specific strategies in assessment, teaching and learning.

This Case Study was published by the Scottish Schools Ethos Network.

Balwearie High School
Balwearie Gardens
Fife, KY2 5LY
Contact: Mr GD Mackenzie, Rector, 01592 412262


Balwearie High School lies at the western edge of Kirkcaldy. The roll is 1750 including 95 pupils in the Department of Special Education. Pupils in the Department have recorded special educational needs and learning difficulties and are provided with a differentiated curriculum within the 5-14 curriculum guidelines. They take practical subjects in the mainstream school and are included in mainstream classes as individually appropriate. The school serves a wide catchment with six associate Primary schools and a large number of placing requests. There is a balanced social mix, taking in areas of disadvantage and small rural communities as well as a large area of Kirkcaldy itself. Over half the pupils travel to school by bus.

The major focus in the school over the past few years has been learning and teaching. Use of the relevant performance indicators from How Good is our School? in school development planning has allowed staff to focus on areas where improvements could be made. Good practice is highlighted in the staff handbook. This includes a whole-staff position statement on how to meet the GTC's classroom competencies. All staff have taken part in whole school INSET delivered by experts from a variety of organisations, and they are familiar with, for example, the concepts and practical implications of multiple intelligences and preferred learning styles. Reciprocal teaching by pupils of their fellow pupils is a well established learning strategy in subjects such as biology (see photo A). Successful strategies for S1 classes are shared by teachers. A 'Learning and Teaching' week last session gave class teachers the opportunity to observe practice in other departments. It is in this progressive and collaborative climate that involvement of pupils in their own learning is set.

Photo A: Pupils in an S3 biology class teach an aspect of a lesson to their peers.
Consulting with pupils and outcomes for teaching and learning

Pupils' Councils

Pupils have run councils for the past eight years giving them a say on school issues. Their experience is such that they are comfortable with the reality that some concerns will be addressed and that others will, of necessity, be rejected after due consideration and explanation. The year councils meet with the Rector as a whole group every term and whole school issues are both raised and consulted upon. It has been of value to set up working groups of council volunteers and the most successful of these pioneered a high profile anti-bullying campaign which is being sustained. Because of this tradition, pupils feel that this is one of the avenues they can take to have their views heard on many matters including learning and teaching.

Two developments illustrate the links between consultation with pupils, positive responses by staff and the development of new strategies:

S4 pupils (see photo B). last session felt that it would be helpful if Standard Grade and Highers pupils had a standard calculator. This would remove the constant advice about the use of calculators having to be tailored to the many different types owned by pupils. The Maths department agreed and suggested the best value calculators in terms of both cost and usefulness. This advice has been advertised in the twice-yearly Newsletter and the Prospectus and has been widely followed.

Pupil Council members were also concerned at the timing of assessments and of homework load. They were having difficulty planning homework, work for internal assessment, end of topic revision and study. As a result, a 'deadlines' calendar is issued to all pupils in S3-S6 near the start of the session. This is also useful when staff are chasing up pupils who have not met deadlines!

Photo B: S4 Pupil Council at lunchtime meeting.
Use of Questionnaires

Balwearie HS pupils have been consulted using questionnaires on a number of issues.

In the early nineties Standard Grade and Course Choice questionnaires were given to all S3 and S4 pupils. Careful questionnaire design also allowed pupils to indicate preferred ways of learning, particularly the most effective use of resources and audio visual aids available at the time. Results were fed back to staff and pupils, and resourcing of certain subject areas was reviewed.

In a Standard Grade Chemistry questionnaire (S4 October 1999) pupils were asked to reflect on worksheets, classwork, homework, and tests and were invited to make general comments. There was an 85% return and the findings were discussed with all the 112 Chemistry pupils in the year group. Some of the pupil suggestions since acted upon by the Chemistry department are listed opposite.

A questionnaire about Study Support was given to every pupil in S3-S6 in September this year. Pupils were asked directly to decide when, where, and what they needed. This has been acted on 'to the letter'. Pre-prelim classes on specific topics and general revision were asked for in the S4 returns. The response to these classes has been huge over 60% of S4 pupils (out of a roll of 330) have attended after school. Almost all departments are running classes in this programme. S4, 5 and 6 students made a request for study support classes from January until May and staff response has been very high. Not to be outdone, S3 pupils asked for help in preparing for their school exams in April. Classes will also be provided for them.

Some pupils had been identified by subject department staff as underachieving in their S4 prelim exams. These pupils were then 'paired', or linked more frequently by planned meetings, with their Guidance teacher who gave advice on planning and organising study. In an attempt to evaluate and improve this mentoring system, participants were asked to comment on the experience after they had moved into S5 last session, allowing time for reflection. On the strength of their comments and improved exam performance, the mentoring scheme was extended to include a wider range of interested staff and a larger group of pupils.

We need 'spot' tests to check we understand.
Mini tests for Knowledge and Understanding are now used approximately three times during each topic.
I think Chemistry should be made more interesting.
Increased use of PCs and videos has been incorporated into the course. Powerpoint presentations using a projector have also made certain aspects more appealing. Further use of technology is being investigated.
It is quite confusing.
The department has a target in the Departmental Development Plan for this session to clarify, review and redesign the 'Acids' and 'Alkalis' topics and others, later, to make them less confusing and more relevant.
More help sheets needed.
The department has produced lists of keywords and summary sheets to cover 'You will have to know this . . .'
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