Small city, big ideas

David Henderson

Aberdeen schools are set for further innovation as education retains its high standing on the national agenda. David Henderson introduces a special report on the way ahead

Aberdeen has never been short of educational innovation in the five years since the break-up of Grampian Region. Standardised testing of pupils as they enter Primary 1, partial immersion French in primary school, basic skills work through computers in S1 and S2, adapted and flexible curricula in secondary school and the reorganisation of special schools have all broken the mould.

Add to that the national agenda of early intervention, new community schools, social inclusion and specialist schools and a picture of widescale creeping reform emerges. Plans to co-ordinate S5 and S6 provision across the city are merely the latest developments. Some have courted controversy and strong opposition, others have slipped easily in to the mainstream.

John Stodter, the city's director of education - but not for long since his post disappears next month in a council shake-up (see page 11) - says rather proudly that achievement and attainment have increased steadily over the past five years. The new watchword, however, is diversity, a theme that plays well nationally.

"We always believed that the school system would have to change in response to a more complex society," Mr Stodter says. "I always did say there would be different types of schools and, sure enough, there are family centres that were once nurseryinfant schools; we've got education action plan schools that are taking very innovative approaches with youngsters and parents; we're employing different kinds of staff as part of the educational process - counsellors, social workers, community health workers, community police - and we've got new community schools and specialist schools of excellence.

"So, the whole nature of what a school looks like and what it does, its remit, is becoming more complex, sophisticated and diverse. You used 10 years ago to walk into a secondary school and it would be pretty much the same anywhere; that's changing fast."

The north-east is often regarded, not least by the financial boffins in Edinburgh who distribute funds, as an affluent area, fuelled by the oil industry and more than capable of standing up for itself. But the city still has pockets of severe disadvantage, among the 10 per cent most deprived in Scotland, says Mr Stodter. No one school, therefore, fits all communities.

"Diversity was inevitable. A lot of the innovation in terms of family centres, early intervention, new community schools and different approaches to pre-school have been in the primary sector. But I think there are more changes to come in secondary. Primaries have traditionally catered better for individuals and families," Mr Stodter believes.

Among headteachers, the director sees fresh vision and leadership that perhaps has been stifled for too long. Heads are ready to change the curriculum and the nature of learning and support diversity.

On his school tours, Mr Stodter has not found the negativity and depression that many, inside and outside the system, would have you believe is prevalent. "Each school has been able to identify significant areas of good practice. They all talk about inclusion and the fact that they're taking in youngsters from all sorts of backgrounds. Teachers are focused and extremely professional and very committed. I've been very encouraged. The system has taken a lot of change and I think there is still a lot of change to come."

Any city that does not shape its educational future and take the lead will find itself "a victim of circumstance", Mr Stodter maintains. However, the things that need to be done will probably bring flak, including school closures or changing catchment areas. Some secondaries are overflowing, others are empty.

"At the end of the day, my job is about efficient and effective education and for me that means planning your capacity. Infrastructure, staffing and buildings account for 90 per cent of the budget and my aim is to take all the resources we've got and try to get them in the frontline. If the public understand that, they support what you're doing."

Jurgen Thomaneck, education convener in the Labour-run city, believes Aberdonians should be proud of their schools. "The results in terms of examinations quite clearly indicate that we do provide a very good education system and results are extremely high compared with the rest of Scotland. Cults Academy, for example, is the top performing school in the country," he says.

At the other end, pre-school provision for three-and four-year-olds is as high as anywhere, while efforts are continuing to provide wraparound nursery care to help working parents.

As a professor of German, who still maintains his interest at Aberdeen University, Mr Thomaneck is particularly pleased at the development of early immersion in modern languages at Walker Road Primary in Torry, a project he personally pushed through.

In secondary, he is now ready to act on the difficulties of providing coherent and equitable course choice in S6, which has been the subject of an extensive review (TES Scotland, August 24).

He also accepts there are difficult issues the city will have to tackle, including school size, that will involve amalgamations. Ultimately, any closure programme has to benefit education and the community, he emphasises. Provision for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties also remains contentious.

On his wishlist is more money to expand the number of community schools. "They are working extremely well in Northfield and Torry," he points out.

In the past year or so, education reform has never been far from local headlines. Similarly, Aberdeen Grammar was never far from the centre of action, whether over its possible renaming, changes to its zones or its Roman Catholic provision. One mother is currently taking the council to court over its failure to give her child a Catholic education at the school.

Now, the proposed merger of the academies at St Machar and Linksfield is drawing equal attention, while sensitivities among parents and teachers on the reorganisation of special education rumble on.

Issues of capacity will not go away when the city's pound;107 million education budget never seems to go far enough. Since 1996, pound;14 million has gone in packages of cuts. On the one hand, there is more money for education through the Scottish Executive's Excellence Fund priorities and the Chancellor's one-off bonuses for repairs and materials, but they are balanced by a succession of annual cuts in other areas. Financial transparency and honesty is something the public would appreciate, Mr Stodter says.

Not surprisingly, the city argues it has been unfairly treated in the national division of public spending. Many people take advantage of Aberdeen's services and infrastructure while living outside in the shire. Educational spending is, therefore, lower than it might be and parental expectations become difficult to meet, even in a prosperous city.

At the same time, the city is attempting to cope with disadvantage in areas such as Northfield or Torry and feels peeved that it was excluded from the round of Executive spending on the new educational maintenance allowances for 16-year-olds in disadvantaged areas. Many young people with low expectations would have benefited, Mr Stodter says.

Aberdeen remains a polarised city. Education has to respond locally to its different needs.

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