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Ask pupils to spark revival

David Henderson listens to one headteacher's experience of changing the attitudes of her pupils (below) while the school ethos conference, organised by the Anti-Bullying Network in Dunblane, hears about the importance of listening

The attitudes towards life and school among pupils at St Columba's High, Gourock, are at the centre of its revival.

"I'm pure thick, I dae spud science," proclaimed one pupil.

Others had a little more self-belief but were still hesitant about doing well. Maybe, they said, four Highers were better than five because you might fail one if you do five. Parents, too, advised them not to risk it.

Headteacher Elizabeth Doherty knows where they are coming from. As a former pupil of St Columba's High on the boundary of Greenock and Gourock, she is well placed to appreciate the lack of confidence among young people in a catchment area that includes three social inclusion partnerships.

Not doing well comes naturally to many but not Martin Compston, star of Sweet Sixteen, the recent Ken Loach movie about the harsh side of growing up in a Greenock housing scheme. Young Compston managed to gain four Highers while at St Columba's.

Mrs Doherty continues to believe that her school remains the best option for many, and the best chance to get as much out of life as possible when the cards are often stacked against them.

There was much to do when she took over as headteacher, she told the ethos conference in Dunblane organised by the Anti-Bullying Network at Edinburgh University.

The school thought it was beginning to meet its high ideals until it did what it didn't normally do - ask the pupils. Many said they were not respected. Two years later, they were surveyed again and while it was mostly positive, the negatives were still there. The building itself, dotted with buckets to catch the drips from the flat roof, did not rate highly.

"Top of the list of things they hated about the school were the "pure minging" toilets - and they were pretty disgusting.

"They were quite rightly very annoyed at how some staff managed the inappropriate behaviour programme and felt some staff valued some pupils more than others. It was quite close to home," Mrs Doherty said.

An action plan followed. A school-wide awards and incentives scheme was introduced, corridors were covered in displays, and pupils ran the students' council. The toilets are now painted with colours chosen by the pupils and remain well-kept.

"Their views are actively sought when we write new school policies," the head said. "Dress code: serious amounts of pupil input to that one and on presentation of work when we are making work look better in the jotters," she said.

Other groups run the discos, fundraising activities and links to the community. One S5 group is setting up a drop-in centre to help younger pupils in the inclusion zone, some of them with previously poor attendance and some who have been excluded. Special training at a local hotel prepared them.

"These students will be buddies for the pupils in the inclusion zone when they are there because they've got street-cred that we haven't got," the head said.

Their interest has expanded to helping out at the breakfast club, serving other pupils. St Columba's also focused on the S5 pupils, who traditionally fell away in their Higher year. This past year, 18 per cent of the previous fourth-year boys achieved five awards at level 6 or over.

"I don't suppose I'll see ever again a decile 1 against St Columba's High School, but I saw one this year and I'm going to frame it," Mrs Doherty said. The secondary used to lose about 60 pupils a year to neighbouring schools but now is showing a small gain. Exclusions halved after the setting up of the inclusion zone, an in-school support base, and attendance improved by 3.2 per cent.

"It was a major achievement. It was as if Fridays did not exist in some parts of Greenock," the head added.

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