THE FIRST thing Whitburn Academy's headteacher tells parents of the new S1 intake is that first year is "not going to be a doddle" for their children. It is the most important message he puts across.
Whitburn Academy is unique in West Lothian, and unusual, if not unique, in Scotland, in that its pupils make their course choices at the end of S1 and face a dual presentation system of "fast track" when it comes to exams. Roughly half the pupils sit their Standard grades and Intermediate exams at the end of S3 as a stepping stone to their Higher presentation in S5.
But Whitburn is also typical of other schools in West Lothian in that it specifically targets raising the attainment of the bottom 20 per cent of pupils, a strategy for which the local authority was lauded by HM Inspectorate of Education in June. In the report, which noted "significant improvements in attainment at almost all levels", West Lothian came out with the second best record of improvement in Scotland in the attainment of the lowest 20 per cent of pupils (2006).
This was achieved by identifying the 20 per cent poorest performers and the 20 per cent from the most socially deprived areas, providing them with additional support and closely monitoring their progress.
"It was more about raising the bar than closing the gap," says Gordon Ford, director of education and cultural services. "You can't just close the gap. You have to raise attainment at the top 20 per cent as well as the bottom. It's about knowing the most vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils individually and putting strategies in place. But it is up to the individual school to devise the strategies they think work best for them."
Almost a quarter of Whitburn pupils are entitled to free meals, and the school uses cognitive ability tests (CAT) and its own internal assessments to follow up P7 tests and identify the bottom 20 per cent. It is also told what share it has of the overall 20 per cent of poorest performers in the local authority, and extra funding is put in place accordingly. These pupils are then carefully tracked and monitored throughout their school careers and extra support is provided when necessary.
Early choice and curricular flexibility are the two criteria which lead to improvement, says David Williamson, the headteacher. "At the start of S2, like the other pupils, the bottom 20 per cent have already embarked on their chosen Standard grade, Access and Intermediate courses, which means less time potentially wasted," he says. "Pupils are also more motivated, because they are already doing their own chosen subjects at the end of their first year."
But these pupils also have a flexible friend in the curriculum. "We have no fixed curriculum for all or every pupil," says Mr Wil-liamson. "Other than English and maths, there are no compulsory subjects at the academy. So each pupil, while following a balanced curriculum, is motivated by doing subjects they want to and at a level which suits their learning. They can build and continue to build on their own success."
Like other West Lothian schools, Whit-burn provides a range of vocational education in conjunction with local colleges, private businesses, the voluntary sector, the local health care trust and the council's own direct services. "We are preparing pupils for life and work beyond school, as well as raising attainment and giving them an experience of success in school. It's about a personalised curriculum," says Mr Williamson. "And a personalised curriculum is music to my ears."
It's also music to the ears of the parents, who are fully supportive, and the pupils. Speaking to a group of pupils entering S4, I found them unanimous in their support of early choice and curricular flexibility and of the split system which allows those who are able to sit their first national qualifications at the end of S3.
"The work rate is just about right and I like being able to do what I want," says Mhairi Lambie.
Like Mhairi, Ikra Nadeem feels she will be ready for her S4 exams and says: "I'm motivated because I enjoy what I'm doing."
Gavin Dow says the system "works to your needs" and speaks appreciatively of the literacy help he was given in S1 by support staff and paired reading buddies. Having lost two months at school because of an operation in S3, he says the system helped him catch up, first with home tuition recuperating, then with a half-timetable until he was back to good health and, finally, letting him drop PE, which he couldn't take part in, and convert the time to extra study. "I'm happy with my progress in my chosen subjects. Although I thought at first that we made choices too early, I think it was good because you get further up in your subjects than you would have waiting till S2," he says.
Lorne Gillies, who sat her Standard grades in S3, says: "You got pushed but it was still fun. I've got two years to prepare for my Highers, but I'm not sitting back. It's just right, working at the level you feel comfortable at and doing what interests you most."
Mr Williamson is in full agreement with director Gordon Ford that raising attainment for the bottom 20 per cent involves raising attainment for all; and he vigorously defends the decision to divide year groups into the "fast track" and "normal" tranches.
"It works for us. It's about personalisation, about presenting pupils when they are ready and capable of being successful, rather than forcing through a whole year group," he says. "So, it's not about 'hothousing', about pushing everybody for early presentation. It's about responding to pupils' needs and abilities. If we didn't allow the able pupils to progress to their abilities, we'd be letting them down in the same way that we would if we didn't respond to the needs of the bottom 20 per cent."
Early choice, the flexible curriculum and the two-track system were introduced in 2004. They make timetabling something of a nightmare at times and concentrating S1-2 courses into one year involved staff in a lot of extra work, but they were supportive of the idea. "I believe we have enriched the curriculum for everyone," says Mr Williamson, who is retiring this month.
"And the two-year Higher course doesn't mean teaching more topics. It means going into topics in more depth. We might have done something revolutionary here, by bringing fun and enjoyment back into the Higher syllabus."