'A bit different for the right reasons'

Raymond Ross

Northfield Academy has earned a reputation as a beacon of socially inclusive, community-based secondary education. David Henderson examines how, while Raymond Ross investigates some of its more innovative project work

Northfield Academy's assistant headteacher, Susan Alley, says: "This is a learning community which is part of a much bigger learning community".

That much bigger learning community includes not only Northfield's associate primaries and local residents but also the three higher education institutions in the north-east of Scotland - Robert Gordon University, Northern College and the University of Aberdeen - along with Aberdeen College, Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council.

Together they have set up the 3Sixtyx University for Children and Communities (UCC) to target low progression rates into higher education by school leavers and low rates of participation in further education and higher education generally in areas identified as suffering multiple deprivation.

The Northfield area of Aberdeen is in the top 5 per cent of deprived areas in Scotland, so together with the Gordon schools in Huntly, Northfield Academy came on board the four-year project last session. The roll-out plan over the next two years will include Torry, Kincorth, Linksfield and St Machar academies in Aberdeen, and Mearns, Fraserburgh and Peterhead academies in Aberdeenshire.

Launched in 1999 and supported by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, which is providing the four-year start-up funding, the UCC has two bold declarations.

First, each of the target schools, within three years of entering the UCC, will achieve or exceed the Scottish average progression rate for school leavers entering higher education, benchmarked at the 199899 level (31 per cent).

Second, by the year 2010, the percentage of school leavers from each of the target schools entering higher education will not be less than 50 per cent.

With only about 20 S6 pupils from a roll of 1,100 going straight into higher education last session, the enormity of the task is obvious, but the participating bodies regard the targets as "challenging" rather than unrealistic.

"There are already HE and FE courses in sociology, philosophy, psychology, ICT, social sciences, parenting and preparation for work being held in local community centres and schools," says Ms Alley. "It's about breaking down barriers and, from the school's point of view, giving our young people services they wouldn't otherwise get.

"In June, 120 of our students spent two days at Robert Gordon University doing practical construction work, team building and meeting staff. It was the first time they had crossed a university threshold. We want to take away the fear the kids have of higher education and the feeling that it's not for them."

But it is not just about higher education. It's about catering for all interests and abilities, supporting children, young people and their parents, as well as adult learning at all levels.

In conjunction with Aberdeen College, S4 boys at Northfield Academy are studying service engineering, information and communications technology and sports coaching to deliver basic trades, while S3 girls have just embarked on hairdressing (see facing page). Chemistry pupils have also visited and worked in Aberdeen University laboratories, while even local primary school science clubs can call on the services of university staff.

"3Sixtyx means looking at degrees from all angles and involving everyone we can in a university-type learning community," says Ms Alley. "School liaison officers come in to talk to S4 and S5 pupils, and so do former pupils who have gone to university, so that school and beyond school are not seen as different.

"We also encourage parents to get involved. They can come here to access information about courses, whether they are offered here or not, and we will be part of the new family learning initiative which the city council hopes to create soon, so that we can offer day and evening classes, summer schools, community events and after-school clubs, all with cr che facilities. We've spent a number of years trying to make this school a bit different for the right reasons."

Northfield Academy presently has a 70 per cent stay-on rate. That is improving steadily, the school believes, because of meaningful courses. "If senior schools can't attract pupils in this way, they'll die," says Mr Robertson.

"Vocational studies have to be real. We have three boys doing engineering, but it's not about producing tea-pot stands. They're building a hovercraft.

"Our model of education was born more than 100 years ago. It needs to be taken by the scruff of the neck and dragged into the 21st century, which is what we're doing.

"Pupils are important to us, but so is the community. This building is grossly under-used. We need to become what we will become - a community outreach centre in conjunction with the universities and Aberdeen College. It's an education community."

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Raymond Ross

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