There is more to success than exams, says the headteacher of Leith Academy who has led the school football team to new heights. David Henderson reports
Headteacher Sandy McAulay takes the second year football team at his 960-pupil secondary, Leith Academy. Last season, they were bottom of the inter-school league with no victory in nine matches. Now they're top after eight games and no defeats.
Such are the fortunes of league tables, the vagaries of performance and the abilities of coaches to make the most of available talent. There have never been so many parents watching the lads and willing to ferry them to away games on a Saturday. Parental support has been vital.
If the team target was to improve, they have achieved that, much like the Edinburgh school's academic results.
Mr McAulay believes the growth in extra-curricular activities by around one-third is beginning to pay dividends on a wider front as the culture and ethos of the school assimilates the improvement agenda.
The head, as chief academic coach, is comforted by Standard grade, Higher and modular results that mirror the progress of the S2 football players. The Scottish league tables of performance now show Leith in a better light, not that Mr McAulay is a fan of targets and tables.
But like Premier League managers, heads are judged, whether they like it or not, on results. They know it, too. As the legendary Bill Shankley might have said, the best guess at the formula for success is hard work.
Leith Academy is on the up. Its mixed catchment would put it in the bottom third of schools, but it has jumped to the middle third and last summer surpassed its three-year exam targets.
Sixteen per cent of pupils used to get five or more Credits at Standard grade. The achievement target for 2001 was 23 per cent, but already 25 per cent are getting at least five Credits.
In S5, 16 per cent achieved three or more Highers, against a target of 11 per cent. The number of presentations for SQA modules has doubled, with S5-S6 pupils taking five to six modules last summer compared with two to three the year before. If both S5 and S6 Higher results were combined, the school would be in the top third of performance.
Some pupils just take longer to develop. "We had one girl who got no Highers in S5 but four in S6," the head says.
Like many others, Mr McAulay believes that exam results are not the "be all and end all" of performance evaluation. "If you get all the other things right, the teaching and learning in the classroom, the extra-curricular experiences and make pupils feel valued, the positive exam results will come.
"The targets are not that important to me. These targets were not negotiated, they were imposed, as if the school had no desire to improve, and I do not think they made the slightest bit of difference. Targets have to be locally agreed and come from schools' development plans."
Since Mr McAulay came to the school five years ago, he has tried to lift the sights of its pupils, parents and staff. More than three years ago, 72 per cent of the pupils thought they would be better off going to another school if they wanted good grades. Now, 60 per cent say they are doing better where they are.
A number of strategies have begun to turn around the "sleeping giant". Mr McAulay believes that initial sessions on establishing school values - "getting the basics right" - have been vital in improving performance. Part of it was creating a positive ethos for learning, a corporate identity or a belonging. Daily assemblies for year groups help achieve this.
Discipline has been tightened, or rather approached from the view of positive, self-regulating discipline, where praise is instrumental. And there is no graffiti in the school.
Course choice is important. "The most unhappy people in the school are the third years who choose a curriculum they do not like," Mr McAulay says. That is one reason why there are individual interviews in S2 and S4 when courses are being selected.
Pupils in S5 are set exam targets and urged to do their best. "Fifth year is a year of sacrifice," Mr McAulay says. "If part-time jobs have to go, they have to go."
A renewed emphasis on homework and supported study have also played their part in improvements, as have software programs such as Successmaker. "Let's not give people detention for not doing homework," says Mr McAulay, "but homework is important, and has to be marked, because at an early stage it asks the youngsters to be responsible in part for their own learning. If you leave it until the fourth year, it's too late."
Supported study for all pupils takes place on four afternoons and is staffed by volunteers. Weekends away with senior pupils also helps commitment to study. Instead of a sixth year common room, there is a study area.
This session, lesson periods have been lengthened from 40 to 60 minutes, with school ending at 3.20pm. Writing subjects in particular appear to have benefited greatly from this, says Mr McAulay.
It is not only the pupils who are encouraged to do better. Two or three departments a year go through their own self-evaluation, a process which includes classroom observation. "It's a no-blame culture but no matter how good you are, you can improve," the head says.