Dumfries and Galloway looks to a new age of secondaries

To remedy its falling rolls and underoccupied buildings, the local authority has tabled radical proposals for a restructure, including separate establishments for S1-3s and a `senior phase' school for older students. Emma Seith reports

It would be a barnstormer of a meeting, we were told. But in the event, the consultation for staff at Dumfries High, which could in four years' time lose half of its roll to a purpose-built school for S4 to S6 students, attracted just 20 people, most of whom were from feeder primaries. "Typical Dumfries," attendees mumbled. Apathy abounds here, they said, casting an eye over the rows of empty seats in the school hall.

A lack of notice was the problem, insisted the EIS union's local area secretary, John Dennis, who teaches modern languages at the school. The email about the meeting went out to the secondary staff only that morning, he pointed out. But an event earlier in the week at Maxwelltown High had a similar turnout - and again was primary heavy.

Yet it is secondary staff who stand to feel the impact most if, on 27 June, Dumfries and Galloway councillors opt to take further plans to build a "senior phase" school, with the four existing secondaries - Dumfries High, Dumfries Academy, Maxwelltown High and St Joseph `s College - serving pupils only up to S3.

The idea - born four years ago out of a need to do something about the town's tired and underoccupied secondaries - is that these junior- secondary schools will have closer ties with local primaries. They will share staff and managers and eventually grow into a series of "learning communities", serving young people from the ages of 3 to 15.

Such a structure would be more in tune with Curriculum for Excellence, with its broad general education up to S3. It would also ease transition; keep pupils in more intimate settings for longer; and make the curriculum in early secondary less fragmented, director of education Colin Grant argues.

Meanwhile, the senior-phase school - which the Scottish government has agreed to help fund to the tune of around pound;17 million - would be located on the Crichton Campus, which already hosts the University of Glasgow, the University of the West of Scotland and Dumfries and Galloway College.

There, it is argued, the new school would be able to form closer links with further and higher education and enjoy the obvious benefits that follow. It could offer a wealth of trades workshops to its 1,200 pupils and, for the more academically inclined, first-year university courses.

Of all Scotland's local authorities bar one, Dumfries and Galloway has the highest number of young people failing to enter training or employment after school, Mr Grant says - hence the need for radical changes such as the proposed reorganisation.

"If you meet a former pupil who has gone on to university, you can see how you helped them get there, but less so if they are a plumber with their own business," he told the Dumfries High meeting.

The pot of cash to deliver the senior school and 3-15 campuses - known as "option 2" and the option preferred by Mr Grant - is pound;41 million. This is far more than is needed for the new build, he said. The rest of the money would be used to replace or refurbish the S1-3 schools and link them to their cluster primaries.

There are, however, another two options on the table for the so-called Dumfries Learning Town. One of them - "option 3" - has been all but abandoned. It envisaged that P6 and P7 pupils would move into the S1-3 schools. But this idea was shelved mainly because small primaries would have been compromised.

That leaves "option 1" - the "as you are" option. This involves no senior- phase school being built and the four existing secondaries continuing to serve S1-6 children.

Primary and secondary management structures would, however, be more closely aligned and common course options for all the town's S4-6 pupils developed. This would mean that young people might end up moving round the town, tapping into the courses that interest them, wherever they happen to be running.

This proposal is the one most teachers prefer, according to Mr Dennis of the EIS. "If we went for option 2, there would be extra government money and nowhere else would have anything like it, but there are certainly concerns about it - not least workload for those in the senior-phase school, who would have nothing but certificated classes," he said.

If this plan - the most radical - goes ahead, it is likely that Dumfries teachers will work either in the S1-3 schools or the senior school, but not across both.

In that scenario, the teachers being transferred to the new system would be able to state their preference - junior-secondary or senior school. Mr Grant said he was certain that most would get their preference. It might also be possible for teachers who disliked the new structure to move into traditional secondaries elsewhere in the authority, while those interested in the new model could move in.

The number of promoted posts, meanwhile, would be retained and redistributed across the five establishments.

"Apart from the headteacher of the new senior-phase school, every other promoted post would be ringfenced to all the current promoted-post staff," Mr Grant said.

Option 1 is Joady Earle's preferred option. The principal teacher of science at Dumfries High agrees with Mr Dennis that this is the option that most teachers back.

"I can see the benefits of having a senior-phase school, but the prospect of losing S4 to S6 is quite upsetting, actually," she said. "If you work in a secondary school, you want to see them through to their qualifications."

Other concerns among staff are that working across just three year groups will be bad for their promotion prospects.

Parents, on the other hand, have different concerns. One is child protection if 15-year-olds should mix with adults on the Crichton Campus. Other worries include the impact of making a transition close to exam time and their children being "guinea pigs".

However, while Ms Earle has her doubts about option 2 professionally, as a parent it would be her top choice, she admits.

Option 2 is Gordon Ballantyne's preferred choice - as a parent and teacher.

"It would give pupils a better range of vocational options. Schools are primarily qualification factories and those of lower ability tend to miss out," said Mr Ballantyne, an RE teacher at Dumfries High and one of the secondary teachers who attended the meeting. But the final decision rests in the hands of the SNP and Conservative-led council. At this stage, it is impossible to predict how they will vote, said chair of the education committee, Conservative councillor Gail MacGregor.

"Until we get three finalised options in black and white, I don't think any of us can make an informed judgement," she said.

That will happen by the end of this month in time for the education committee's meeting on 6 June. It will then make a recommendation and full council will vote on the option to pursue on 27 June.

Key statistics

1,000 - The rate of underoccupancy across Dumfries' four secondary schools

160 - The number of Catholics attending St Joseph's College, the 765-pupil Catholic secondary in Dumfries and Galloway

87.3% - The proportion of Dumfries and Galloway's young people who entered employment or training in 2011-12. Only Midlothian has a worse record, with 85.4 per cent going on to positive destinations

Catholic perspective

The Catholic Church could take legal action if Dumfries and Galloway council decides to pursue plans to build a senior-phase school in Dumfries and turn the town's four existing schools into junior secondaries, says the director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service.

Turning the four existing Dumfries high schools into junior secondaries would mean ending Catholic education at S3 for the entire area, according to Michael McGrath.

"The council would face legal challenge because in law it would be regarded as a significant depreciation in provision," he says.

The schools earmarked to become S1-3 schools include Dumfries and Galloway's only Catholic secondary, St Joseph's College; Dumfries High, Dumfries Academy and Maxwelltown High.

But the plans could still go ahead without St Joseph's if the council votes for "option 2" on 27 June, says director of education Colin Grant.

"As an education department, we would like all Dumfries schools to be fully involved, but we're in consultation with the Catholic Church and it remains to be seen."

St Joseph's College is the only Dumfries secondary that is full to capacity - across the three remaining secondaries there are 1,000 unoccupied places. However, only 160 of St Joseph's 765 pupils are Catholic.

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