When the emergency services start giving up on a school, you know something has gone far wrong. The fire alarm at Perth Grammar used to be deliberately set off every two or three days. It became so predictable that the fire service refused to come out, unless someone phoned to confirm it was a genuine alarm. "It sapped the energy of the place," says headteacher John Low, who claims that in a school of 1,100 pupils, about 400 teaching hours were lost each time the alarm went off.
It was symbolic of the school's malaise which led to Mr Low being drafted in on an acting basis from Aberfeldy's Breadalbane Academy, early in 2007, with a brief to get it through its next inspection. There was a hardline response to offenders, who had previously known they could get away with an exclusion: guilty parties would be charged by police. "Within two or three weeks, we were back in charge," says Mr Low.
Since then, the fire alarm has only been deliberately set off once.
"The school lacked a lot of things," recalls Mr Low, listing confidence, ambition and direction, as well as more tangible deficiencies. There was "nothing for the kids". The absence of anywhere for them to sit outside struck him as glaring, and has been rectified with outdoor seating.
Mr Low, who is in post permanently, does not believe in the "cult of the personality". Instead, he says, he has acted as a "catalyst" for the "fantastic" staff who were already there. He brought in a new motto - Pride, Respect, Ambition - of which staff and pupils were constantly reminded. "There's nobody in the school who wouldn't know what we're doing and where we're going," he says. "Everybody is involved."
That sense of joint effort was backed up by an HMIE report, based on an inspection which took place a year after Mr Low's arrival. There was still progress to be made, but the contribution of everyone was listed among key strengths, including: "large numbers of hard-working and co-operative pupils"; "staff involvement in school improvement"; and "the contribution of the headteacher to promoting a positive climate for learning".
Pupils' changed attitude to their school is clear from the nomination for the Ambition Award - submitted by two senior pupils. Maria Ure and David Noble were frank, explaining that "historically, Perth Grammar School was known to be one of the worst schools in the region".
They launched into a list of reasons for their new-found pride. Foreign trips had been reintroduced, previously off the agenda because of behaviour concerns. The school had won Pounds 80,000 from the Lottery's People's Millions fund, voted for by the public. Vocational courses, including, hairdressing, construction and childcare, were on offer to those who chose not to study a foreign language. The support for learning department had had "great success" with the Duke of Edinburgh Award. "Every day, members of the school achieve success against the odds," said Maria and David.
Mr Low underlines that behaviour has improved "tremendously", exclusion rates have halved and attendance and attainment are on the up. "They don't look down on their school," he says.
"Before, the school had low self-esteem and little expectation to achieve," wrote Maria and David. "Now, we aspire to be the best school in the region."