A bad reputation and the reality

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
Raymond Ross visits Blairgowrie High to find that, far from being a battleground of bullies, the teachers and pupils are building relationships and forging an ethos of respect and communication to encourage better behaviour and better learning

You can't beat a good strawberry tea. And when you visit a school in the middle of "the berry fields o' Blair" on a hot summer day, it seems only right to be treated to a fresh-baked scone, strawberries, cream and a pot of tea.

The strawberry teas are an annual event, prepared and served by pupils from Blairgowrie High's individual support base every day in the last week of the summer term to staff and visitors to raise money for those pupils to go on trips and a residential week, which last session took them to Stirling.

Blair High, as it is known locally - or Battlefield High, as it has been called by the press - was in the news last session over a bullying case which, possibly for the first time in the history of Scottish education, involved interdicts against pupils. Not a happy place, then, or so you would think.

Yet the pupils organise strawberry teas, which as well as raising funds are also about giving them a practical focus, helping them to develop social and personal skills and building staff-pupil relationships.

"We get to make friends with teachers doing this," says S4 pupil Colin Craik (now in S5). "I've got into trouble in classes. I used to get bullied but that's stopped. I was told to keep away from them. Things are stricter," he says.

"Serving the teas is fun," says S4 pupil Abigail Hall, who arrived from the north of England in April. "I've never had any trouble here. I made friends as soon as I arrived," she says.

A group of sixth years, who are free to comment as they wish (and now have moved on), also give a positive picture of Blair High.

"There's nothing worse here than at other schools," says Gordon Duncan.

"The media jumped on the bandwagon. It was a bit unjust," says Jonathan Menzies.

"There are a lot of good teachers. It's happy generally. A lot of classrooms are quite relaxed but there's a high work ethic. There's always been," says Sean Comrie.

"Something did need to be done. A lot of sixth years were and are worried about what universities might think about us coming from this school," says Caitlin Jenkins.

"There are a lot of good things, like we do peer support with first years.

It helps them to feel confident. I think it's important they can speak to older pupils. They know they can come to us if they might not want to go straight to a teacher. I like doing it and I think it's important," says Ceri Davies.

Wandering about the town and its environs before my visit, I notice a couple of school skivers taking an early holiday, larking around on the banks of the river about a half-mile out of town. It is blazing hot, almost the last day of term and only two skivers to be seen in two hours. That's not bad.

In a town cafe, I'm mistaken for a coach driver and the locals are talking quite freely. No one has a bad thing to say about the secondary school.

They do hint at divisions in the area itself; divisions between urban haves and have-nots, rural haves and have-nots, townies and country folk and between all these and the "settled travellers". These things maybe spill over into the school, they say; and one mentions sotto voce a longstanding local tradition of "sorting out problems in a physical manner".

Blair High has a roll of 1,050 with slightly under 10 per cent entitled to free school meals. It does not get any placing requests. On the contrary, some local parents send their children to other schools.

Headteacher Dan McGinty was seconded from St Columba's High in Perth in May. His unwritten remit is to turn the school around, or at least to turn around its reputation of recent months.

"The school still has a high exclusion rate," says Mr McGinty. "I've found it necessary to exclude since I've arrived.

"It is important that parents see that action is being taken against disruptive behaviour and bullying. But we are working to reduce the number of exclusions, to take action before exclusion," he says.

One strategy is to get senior management, guidance staff, the support for learning department (which includes behaviour support and which runs the individual support base) and the school office to work more closely together.

"The principle has been established regarding individual learning plans where there is close co-operation over target setting," says Mr McGinty.

"We want to broaden this close working and extend the regular meetings to cover all aspects of pastoral care, including behaviour support and positive discipline, and we want to broaden this to include outside agencies where a pupil is at risk of being excluded," he says.

This strategy is only part of the approach to better behaviour and better learning.

"We want to get the climate right. Therefore, the main focus is on ethos.

Ethos comes first. We need to get the relationships right and make sure there is an atmosphere of fairness to everyone and that no one feels there is unequal treatment," Mr McGinty says.

"There was a perception among pupils when I came here that teachers had long memories about things that had happened, whereas they, the pupils, wanted to make a fresh start. So I have emphasised to the staff to be seen to treat pupils with respect. I am not criticising staff. I am just saying there was this perception."

Pupils were also aggrieved about the image of the school. "They felt frustrated and even resentful of the negative publicity of their school and their experience of it," Mr McGinty says.

"My own perception was that a lot of very good things were going on, with very high achievements in, for example, maths, sports, art and home economics. There were a lot of very positive things the pupils were aware of and they felt they weren't being fairly represented in the press," he says.

The pupils are proud of their rugby team, which is doing well and the town turns out to support.

The music department has been doing shows for the past six years and tickets always sell well.

Before Mr McGinty could begin to address ethos, equality, fairness and respect, there were more basic and more pressing issues he had to deal with immediately. There were protection management issues, including the management of interdicts.

"We were not the subject of the interdicts. Young people were. But we had to make sure that the pupils affected were following the terms of the interdicts within the school. This meant some detailed timetabling, but I think we've managed fairly successfully.

"Alongside this, the first thing I had to do was to confirm that we had a safe learning environment and a community that respected everyone."

Mr McGinty met with the school board and with the parents of the S1 intake for the new session to reassure them about where the school was going.

"They wanted to be reassured that their children would be safe," he says.

As well as the focus on equality of treatment came a focus on equal learning opportunities.

"We have to focus on the pupils' learning experiences to make sure that learning is of a consistently high standard across all subjects," says Mr McGinty.

"We want all pupils' learning experiences to be at a high level. Among other things, this means that S5 and S6 returners come back on a focussed pathway, that they respect each other and that everyone follows the dress code."

From the first day of his tenure, Mr McGinty made school uniform a positive target. "The wearing of school uniform was patchy before. So I've been pushing and it's picking up. Previously, only seniors had to wear the uniform.

"Teachers, pupils and parents are pleased with this. Uniform is something tangible. It gives a sense of belonging. It says 'We are the community of Blairgowrie High'.

"The focus is to show that the pupils take pride in the school."

A group of S6 pupils agree that school uniform is a positive move. Only one says he is wearing it because he has to do so.

"Uniform is good. It gives a better picture of us towards the community. I think it's important we should be represented well. It's good for Blair High and it's good for us," says pupil Anna Rathband.

Mr McGinty also wants to forge stronger links between the school and the parents. In short, he wants Blairgowrie High to be a listening school.

"There has to be strong communication between the school and parents to give parents more opportunity to say what they think and what they want in the school. We are doing this through bulletins to parents, parents'

nights, the parent-teacher association and the school board," he says.

"But it's about more than parents. During my first two weeks I did a lot of listening, listening to pupils, parents, the school board, police, bus companies and so forth.

"We are listening but also making our expectations of better behaviour and better learning clear."

Kathryn MacNab, principal teacher of guidance, says: "Communication with parents is strengthening alongside our developing a more integrated support structure. The parents are positive and there is a lot of good will towards us in the community."

The reverse of this still remains too, says Mr McGinty. "Problems can come from the community into the school. We do find we are managing issues sometimes whose roots are in the community," he says.

Mr McGinty also wants improvements made to the fabric of the school, such as the main social area for pupils, which looks at best functional, at worst drab. "This is not my standard," he says.

It is apparent that Mr McGinty has a straightforward, no nonsense approach to the pupils and that he cares very much about them and the school. He also shows a quiet relish for the challenge of turning the school around, though he would not be drawn on this.

In his time at St Columba's High he saw it gain a national ethos award (in 1999) and a very good inspection report (in 2001).

"My job here is to reduce the discrepancy between the policies we have on paper and where we are in reality," he says.

Before departing, I am reminded by one of the individual support base pupils that they also lay on Christmas teas. Home-made mincemeat pies I If they're half as good as the strawberry scones, I might just happen to come by.

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