The most recent secondary to open in the country – not including mergers between existing schools – was Meldrum Academy in 2002.
In an interview with Tes Scotland in 2013, the Aberdeenshire school’s first head, Andrew Sutherland, said it was “my third child, in that I reared it all the way through and still have a great passion for the school”.
Like Stuart Clyde at Bertha Park High, Sutherland was head for a year prior to the school’s opening and, when it did launch, the only pupils were in S1-S2.
Sutherland, now director of education and early years in Oldham, Greater Manchester, says that “to make everyone feel involved”, he spent a lot of time with the local community, businesses and others discussing the school’s vision, values and hopes; this “helped to create a sense of excitement and anticipation”.
“I perhaps overdid it slightly, as expectations were sky-high when the school opened and we were under a lot of pressure to deliver from day one, and under intense scrutiny,” he recalls.
The vision was for the school to be “truly inclusive”, with “a culture of the rounded individual central to all we did”, Sutherland adds. It had “pillars” of culture, music and sport, and would eventually develop champion Aberdeenshire under-17 teams in both football and rugby.
Bertha Park aims to throw open its doors to the community, and Meldrum Academy, similarly, was intended to be “a truly community school”. The campus included a public library, police station, social workers and a dentist. The school also opened late on weekdays to encourage community use.
“One of my early tasks was to negotiate with the local bus company to bring the elderly to the library on campus,” says Sutherland. “This gave the school a very different feel to a usual academy and helped it to become a community asset quickly.”
Meldrum was initially taking in about 35 new teachers a year, Sutherland recalls, and demand to work at the academy was so high that it became known as the “Chelsea” of Aberdeenshire schools (this was around the same time as Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich took over the London football club and attracted some of the world’s best players).
There was “a stream of visitors to the school to see what had been done, which was exciting and welcome, but it could take a lot of time from the core headteacher duties”, says Sutherland.
“One of the mistakes we made, in hindsight, was perhaps being too liberal in the early phase with discipline [because] the pupils were S1-S2,” he adds.
Two years in, Meldrum completely reviewed this approach and became “more directive and structured in all discipline matters, to ensure good behaviour across the school”.
There is also a salutary lesson for Bertha Park about the importance of having an S5-S6 cohort for younger pupils to look up to: “What was evident by the time the oldest year group was in fourth year was how much a senior school – S5-S6 – is missed in reinforcing and driving a positive ethos…This was, in my opinion, the most challenging year for the school [but] once we became an S1-S6 academy, the pupil ethos was consistently marvellous,” Sutherland says.
It is also interesting to note, he adds, that the first exam results, in 2006, exceeded “by a significant percentage” those of the two “very good” schools Meldrum Academy had drawn its pupils from.
He attributes this to the “sheer pressure” on the staff, pupils and community to “perform well and justify [Meldrum’s] badge as a flagship school for the authority”, saying: “The school continues to perform well, with great staff in place.”
Current head Andrew Travis was appointed in 2008 and says that, by the time of his arrival, “the community school approach, with an integrated team on site, had been replaced by less formal structures”, although police, a family support worker and community dentist were still present in the building.
“The school was first inspected in April 2005, which was probably too early in the life of the school,” he says, adding that a “highly positive inspection in November 2013 showed a school that had matured and further developed”.
Travis believes that “our core values persist”, including “a strong and well-developed approach that places the young person at the centre”, an “ethos of inclusion [that] pervades the school” and strong bonds with communities, businesses and voluntary groups.
However, he says that, were a new school to open in the north-east of Scotland now, it would face an uphill struggle, as the “severe shortage” of teachers in that part of the country would probably mean that it was understaffed.