Kilmarnock Academy: a school prioritising relationships

Kilmarnock Academy was a new school – created by merging James Hamilton Academy and the old Kilmarnock Academy – that opened fully to 1,200 students and 100 staff in April 2018.

From the start, it was clear that this change would be a huge adjustment for students and staff alike, and that building positive relationships was crucial for our merger to succeed.

In August 2019, we received whole-staff training from When the Adults Change, introducing what we call “key visible consistencies” – such as meeting and greeting at the door and our mobile phone policy of “bag it or box it” – to help bridge the gap between the two former schools and create a new community. These have become key aspects of daily school life.

After our return to in-person teaching following lockdowns due to Covid-19, it became clear that the impact on the social and emotional wellbeing of students meant that focusing on positive behaviour and relationships was crucial.

Students craved structure and certainty after such an unprecedented time, and it was important to have consistency displayed in every classroom and corridor.

These included ensuring the one-way system was used properly by everyone – to make things easier and less congested between lessons – as well as tackling minor indiscipline and meeting and greeting students at every door at the change of classes to ensure that we positively engaged with our students as they entered.

A clear pattern emerged that technology through mobile phone use was becoming an increasing issue in all departments, so a “bag it or box it” policy for phones is now used across the school. Students are reminded in each lesson to put their phones in their bags or in a dedicated box at the front of the class to reduce distractions.

We also made sure that each lesson has an “end and send” approach as it finishes, including high-quality plenaries and staff being at the door as students exit. The idea is that the lesson is organised and structured from starter to plenary.

Within this, there has been a recent focus on being kind, which our staff and student positive relationships champions had suggested.

To ensure continued staff involvement and support over the past three years, it has been crucial to continually evaluate and adjust strategies and provide training through whole-staff meetings, parent council meetings and leadership meetings. We have also provided prefect training, empowering student leaders in restorative practices.

As a school, we focus on how we interact with students and all are encouraged to follow the “polite, calm, considerate and prepared” expectations that we have across our campus.

We have also empowered our staff through scripted conversations highlighting the school values of respect, compassion, determination and integrity when we see them, which can be used as a starting point in building positive relationships, as well as setting clear expectations for all.

Meanwhile, “hot spots” and “learning walks” have reduced internal truancy, as well as allowing students a chance to work in a quieter space when they are not ready to learn.

Hot spots are senior classes with room for younger S1-3 students to work in, too, if they need time out of their class, ensuring that all learners are able to progress with the lesson.

Learning walks are non-contact periods during which teachers walk across the school and support students and teachers between lessons.

As well as supporting and promoting positive behaviour, it has been crucial to constantly support and applaud the students that may typically pass under the radar – with positive texts home, red, green and gold coin rewards for house points, recognition boards, celebration events and whole-school celebrating success ceremonies.

A key factor – alongside training and supporting all in the use of visible consistencies – has been leading restorative conversations. These give students and staff, for the first time, a central, structured and universally understood means for such conversations to take place following a breakdown in relationships.

This by no means indicates there are no consequences for behaviour, but the school’s approach offers a moment of reflection and a chance to understand the impact on one another, and to meet in a neutral setting to rebuild fractured relationships.

Within two years, the use of restorative conversations has increased by 20 per cent, while repeated referrals regarding negative or disruptive behaviour reduced by 26 per cent in a year, and exclusions have also fallen.

The school’s approach has come on in leaps and bounds since it first started, from creating dedicated student and staff working groups and offering prefect and newly qualified teacher training sessions to providing a dedicated room where restorative conversations can take place.

Kilmarnock Academy has not been the same since the pandemic. In fact, teaching itself has completely changed: we now have the knowledge that we can adapt to exceptional change, we have increased our use of technology and we have a greater understanding of the mental health of our young people.

With the commitment from staff and students to understand respectful and positive behaviour – and by providing structured, supportive avenues to improve it – we believe that the changes we are making are for the better.

Katy Noakes, Principal Teacher of Positive Relationships and Restorative Approaches at Kilmarnock Academy, East Ayrshire

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