Meldrum Academy is not tied by the ropes of tradition. It is a new school for a new age in education and the enthusiastic staff are forging policies and courses under an innovative management system. Douglas Blane learns more
For a school described by teachers as a great place to work "because of the buzz", the corridors and public spaces at Meldrum Academy are remarkably quiet.
The explanation is simple. The Aberdeenshire school opened its doors for the first time in August last year with an intake of only S1 and S2 pupils. Four more annual intakes from primary schools will be needed before it reaches its full complement of 1,000 children.
The current focus on the 5-14 curriculum is just one aspect of working at Meldrum Academy that is very unusual. In the uplifting, light, spacious new building is the pioneering spirit of a team that is forging new policies, new courses and a new identity.
In one respect the school is a model for others all over Scotland. It is already operating a post-McCrone, pared-down management structure with the three layers of promoted posts - assistant headteacher, assistant principal teacher and senior teacher - excised, so its staff are living in the brave new educational world envisaged in the national teachers' agreement. Some of them like it. Some don't.
"Fewer layers of management means it's a lot easier to get things done," says depute headteacher Linda Evans.
"On paper we have a structure consisting of separate teams - curriculum support, social inclusion, pastoral care, administration support - but in practice it is not as rigid as it appears. The reduced scale of the management creates opportunities for discussion and bouncing ideas around that I've not come across before. It's a very dynamic, flexible way of working."
This upbeat view of the new structure is shared by the rest of the school's senior management and most of its principal teachers. Among unpromoted teachers opinions are more varied.
Chartered teacher grades are supposed to fill the void for ambitious teachers created by the loss of promoted posts, but there are obstacles.
"For every two training modules completed you get an increment of pound;1,000," says geography teacher Catriona Bayliss. "But you have to pay for the modules yourself, which costs you pound;1,200.
"It almost looks like a way of cutting demand for training, reducing the numbers by increasing the costs."
Having taken part in a pilot training module, for which she was released from the classroom, Ms Bayliss is also aware of the amount of work involved. Teachers normally will have to tackle this in their own time, taking up evenings, weekends or holidays.
"It's going to be a problem for young teachers especially," says religious, moral and philosophical studies teacher Anne Thow. "They already spend so long at home preparing lessons and marking. How are they going to find time for the training?"
"A lot of teachers are very keen to continue with their professional development," says maths teacher Fiona Fraser. "The courses being offered are really interesting, but they do have financial and time implications.
"Now that assistant principal teachers have gone, I wonder, too, how teachers will train to become principal teachers and how they'll distinguish themselves from each other - which is exactly what you have to do at interviews."
The answer may be that some teachers will take on - or be assigned - the duties assistant principal teachers had without gaining the status or salary that once accompanied them.
"I think many of us are now doing an APT's job," says art and design teacher Sandy Allan. "Principal teachers get time off to develop courses, but ordinary teachers have to do it in their own time. It's the same with the collegiate way of working: we are now involved in making decisions but aren't paid to do so.
"We're all having to work harder for the same salary. That's not Meldrum; it's McCrone."
Meldrum Academy has gone even further than McCrone suggested in culling management posts by combining some traditionally separate subject departments into faculties under one principal teacher, causing consternation among the teaching unions.
Headteacher Andrew Sutherland explains the rationale. "When we started thinking about flexibility in the curriculum and working co-operatively, we realised the advantages to linking departments together. For one thing, it solves a problem implicit in McCrone: job-sizing could mean principal teachers in small departments get paid less than chartered teachers who work for them. That would make it difficult for those departments to recruit and retain principal teachers.
"Another big advantage would be a shift in the balance of power in secondary schools. Traditionally the biggest departments are English and maths, which often, therefore, have more influence and better resources.
What we were aiming for was roughly equal teams with equal status. There would also be economies of scale and logistically it's easier for nine principal teachers, rather than 17, to meet and take decisions."
The teaching unions pointed out, however, that reducing the number of principal teachers was no part of the national agreement. So, following negotiations, the management plan was modified, with design and technology and art and design - originally amalgamated as the design faculty - and home economics and physical education - the health faculty - remaining as distinct, relatively small departments. ("Trying to put home economics and PE together is daft," says the local association secretary for the Educational Institute of Scotland, Jack Barnett.) The resulting management structure, says Mr Sutherland, is working well but lacks some of the integrity of the original model.
Meldrum Academy now has two types of curriculum principal teachers: five faculty PTs (in business education and information technology, science, social subjects, performing arts and modern languages) and six subject PTs (in art, maths, English, design and technology, home economics and PE).
The enthusiastic, articulate and youthful collection of 11 teachers appointed to these posts are keen to ensure that a two-tier system does not emerge: "Our jobs are different," admits Phil Gaiter, principal teacher of social subjects, "but that's just a fact of life.
"When I'm at a network meeting with other principal teachers of modern studies, I find my colleagues are seeing things in subject-specific terms.
Modern studies and citizenship, for example, are often thought of as going hand-in-hand, but I'm also wondering what contributions geography, history and religious, moral and philosophical studies can make to citizenship. I'm broadening it out, if you like, where in other schools it may be more compartmentalised."
Dave Martindale's job as principal teacher of science is, he says, very different from what it used to be as a principal teacher of biology. "A change of culture needs to take place for McCrone to work. Teachers have to see themselves as autonomous professionals and the PT is no longer a mega-expert but more of a manager.
"All teachers should be developing the curriculum, not just PTs, who are looking more at quality assurance, personnel, finances."
The consensus among the school's principal teachers is that the enhanced management role devolved on them with the demise of three levels of promoted posts is not a huge burden provided they are given adequate non-contact time (currently 0.4 FTE). However, it would be unwise to make generalisations about post-McCrone managment from this. All Meldrum Academy's PTs applied for their jobs, rather than being transferred from elsewhere, and all give the impression of being positive individuals who welcome change and challenge.
In schools country-wide there will be support teams with their own management to undertake administrative tasks, but Meldrum's welfare and pastoral care team possesses unusual features. It brings together, under an experienced depute headteacher, three whole-school functions that are normally kept separate: guidance, behaviour support and support for learning.
"Behaviour management and administration can eat away the majority of a senior manager's time," says Mr Sutherland. "But our support team is taking away most of the administration, and our welfare and pastoral care team is taking away most of the behaviour issues."
Suzi Elliot, one of five principal teachers of pastoral care, explains how the traditional role of the guidance teacher has been expanded at Meldrum Academy. "We work more closely with support for learning and we have much more of a discipline role. Where discipline used to go from principal teacher to assistant head, it now comes to us. We still have the counselling and care role and we will be looking more at positive behaviour management and less at punitive discipline."
"I'm pleased to have the discipline role," says Liz Prosser, another principal teacher of pastoral care. "It used to feel strange having discipline removed to someone else, while you, as guidance teacher, picked up the pieces without talking to the kids about bad behaviour. It's good now to see the whole picture.
"I wonder, though, how sustainable it will prove when we have our full complement of pupils. You need to be able to respond rapidly to discipline issues but if you are also teaching personal and social education, you might not be as fast as an assistant headteacher would have been."
Meldrum Academy gives the impression of being a delightful place to work, with staff who are dynamic, flexible and co-operative but cautious about making predictions. "If the school was a baby, it would be just nine months old," says Mr Gaiter. "I wouldn't want to make judgements on someone so young about what they'd be like when they grew up. Right now we are doing well, crawling along the floor quite happily."
"I think we are already pulling ourselves up on to the sofa," says the principal teacher of the performing arts, Sheila Robertson.
* 'It's great that everyone is willing to stand right at the edge and say "I've never done this before but I'm going to try" and then step out into the unknown'
Fiona Fraser, maths teacher
* 'I like the team spirit in the faculty system. Geography, history and modern studies are usually separate and competitive, but here we're all sharing resources and ideas'
Catriona Bayliss, geography teacher
* 'There was a lot of working across the curriculum at first because we all started together. The PTs have made a real effort to keep that going and senior management has encouraged it'
Fran Patrick, PT of modern languages
* 'The key to making new community schools work is engagement of all the individuals and all the organisations and that's what I've found here'
Lesley Stopani, integration manager
* 'The school and its structures will evolve over the next few years as the place grows and develops, but one lesson we've learned already is the benefit of working flexibly and not feeling too constrained by job remits'
Raymond Jowett, depute headteacher
* 'The team structure we've set up should release senior management to think strategically and improve the quality of learning and teaching. Once the people and systems are all in place we will actually be managing the school, something that management has rarely been able to do before'
Andrew Sutherland, headteacher
Aberdeenshire Council and the teaching unions, with the help of Aberdeen University, have agreed to evaluate several pilot studies on school management.
"We are not planning to roll out the Meldrum Academy model to all our schools," says head of quality assurance John Finnie.
"Meldrum is a testbed, one of a number of pilot studies.
"What we are doing elsewhere is that when someone leaves, we ask if another principal teacher in that group of subjects wants to take on the responsibility. Where they do, we encourage it and support it and we will evaluate it after two years."
The unions have yet to be convinced about the merits of the faculty model.
"We are hoping the authority is not going into this with preconceived notions of the outcome," says the local association secretary for the Educational Institute of Scotland, Jack Barnett. "Otherwise what's the point of having a pilot?
"In terms of whether the pilot studies will deliver what management expects, we are sceptical. But we are entering into them in a spirit of partnership and debate. We are not Luddites."