Projects tangled in budget strings

The head of the school which won this year's ethos award tells Raymond Ross how Scottish Executive ring-fencing of funds threatens some of its best schemes

At a time when the headteacher of the school which won the 2002 Scottish Schools Ethos Network award should perhaps be basking in some reflected glory, he says he may have to pull the plug on some of its commended projects because of the way the Scottish Executive funds schools.

Ralph Barker, head of Alloa Academy, says: "The issue is a management one. We have been giving lots of support to staff and pupils while budgets are being cut in general across Scotland.

"The Executive says it is in favour of devolving budgets with the headteacher in charge. So why does the money come with strings attached? I'd like to spend the money the way I see fit.

"I had a pupil support base, one of the first in Scotland, before receiving pound;15,000 which had to be spent on the base, on equipment that we already had. I could have used that money to support a range of other initiatives.

"I might have to stop a lot of projects which brought us this award because of the way the Executive funds local government."

The SSEN, which is Executive funded, promotes developing a positive school ethos to boost achievement. The Clackmannanshire school won the pound;2,000 award for a raft of projects ranging from its pupil support base, discipline for learning and assertive discipline, raising self-esteem and attainment to social inclusiveness, ethos-building events, marketing the school in the community, school uniform and anti-bullying policies.

Mr Barker believes the school's success lies largely with the ethos committee which it set up five years ago. Described as "a model committee" by the SSEN judges, its members include teaching and non-teaching staff, pupils, a school board member and a neighbour.

"Alloa Academy is a true comprehensive with 34 per cent of our pupils coming from an area of multi-deprivation, with all its attendant problems.

"We have had a major push on attainment and a 56 per cent increase in pupils gaining credit Standard grade in 2000-01 and a 50 per cent increase in those attaining A to C passes at Higher," says Mr Barker. "And it looks as if this year's figures are as good if not better."

A key feature in raising attainment has been the use of cognitive ability tests (CATs). "They can predict what a pupil can achieve. So we set targets above the CAT predictions and last year we scored 60 per cent attainment above them.

"We set teacher targets and pupil targets and monitor progress. This takes away the Scottish Executive mentality which says that every year your targets will get better. Instead, we are able to measure pupils' actual potential and set targets against that attainment potential."

Part of the ethos involves a positive praise structure. All departments make use of a praise stamp, which features the school badge and a praise word such as "excellent", and mark the pupils' homework diaries. Each stamp is worth a penny and can be traded in for items such as pens, pencils, torches, radios and a cuddly teddy (in school uniform) as well as being put towards the cost of school outings and disco tickets. Some pupils collect as many as 800 stamps over a year.

The school also issues positive referrals, an A5 sheet with a simple praise statement on it, which pupils can take home. Last year the school issued 5,500 slips.

As well as the pupil support base, which has helped cut exclusions by half in the past six years, Alloa Academy runs numerous lunch clubs, covering sports, information and communications technology, art, crafts, public speaking and debating and there is a club which helps to produce the school newspaper.

Ninety-nine per cent of pupils wear school uniform. "Uniform in itself gives positive ethos, prevents bullying about 'cool' clothes and gives a better feel to the place all round," says Mr Barker. "It's not just a dress code. We make positive use of the school badge.

"We began by allowing privileges to those who wore uniform, such as being able to stay inside during lunchtime, and now even pupils on exam leave must turn up in uniform to sit their exams or they lose their exam leave."

Last session (2001-02) Alloa Academy also received a CBI award of pound;2,000 for its lunch clubs initiative, plus a visit from leading business and education figures on the CBI bus, and pound;3,000 from Barclays New Futures to produce a book on the local community, the area and its history.

The SSEN award winnings will be spent in different areas of the school. Senior pupils are using some of the money to clean up the wild garden in the school's central quadrangle. The pupil council is deciding where to spend the remainder. Proposals so far include buying mobile football nets and doing up the pupils' social areas.

The social areas already have music facilities and the pupils decide which radio stations are on. "Perhaps surprisingly, the choice includes five days of Classic FM," says Mr Barker. "That says something about tolerance and proportional representation. It gives the pupils ownership and that's central to any ethos initiative."

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