North Lanarkshire has launched a virtual college for its upper primary and lower secondary pupils, offering a range of sports, music and, from next year, art activities out of school hours. Raymond Ross reports on how the three-year initiative is already raising achievement and building bonds
At Coltness High school in Wishaw, North Lanarkshire, 20 primary school pupils have been put through their paces, relay running in one of the school's gyms. The atmosphere is relaxed. There is a sense of fun as well as of competition - a definite team spirit.
In the other hall, a gymnastics class with another 20 primary pupils is finishing in an excited clatter of voices and equipment. It's 5.30pm.
As all the pupils begin to pile on to the hired buses waiting to take them home, Coltness High's headteacher, Roger Hynd, who used to play football for Rangers alongside the late great "Slim" Jim Baxter and living Ibrox legend John Greig, is busy helping to put away the gymnastics equipment.
This is part of North Lanarkshire's new sports college in action. The out-of-school-hours initiative involves 14 centres across the authority which are providing athletics, gymnastics, dancing, flag football, swimming, football, rugby, netball, basketball and volleyball to 40 P6 and P7 pupils in each centre.
The North Lanarkshire music college is a similar set-up, providing out-of-school-hours services in choral and instrumental activities to primary pupils.
Together with an arts college which will start next year, the combined "virtual college" will involve more than 3,000 pupils drawn from every primary school in North Lanarkshire over the next three years. It will extend into Secondary 1 and 2 in the autumn. The programme, which was begun last month, has received pound;1.4 million from the New Opportunities Fund.
A college of opportunity rather than a college of excellence, the primary aim is not to produce world-class sports people, musicians or artists (although, who knows?). Instead, the objectives are to break the links between disadvantage and under-achievement, to develop the whole person in line with North Lanarkshire's "multiple intelligences" philosophy and to foster a range of personal and inter-personal qualities, including high self-esteem, confidence, teamworking, perseverance, motivation for learning and "achievement orientation".
Alison Cameron, North Lanarkshire's policy adviser on raising achievement, explains. "It's not about a narrow raising of achievement, but is a more holistic approach. It's about more than exam results.
"Out-of-school-hours learning has long been part of our raising achievement agenda. It's a powerful tool because of the more relaxed environment, although this college approach did grow out of the academic emphasis on raising achievement.
"For example, North Lanarkshire already had a strong music tradition. But we wanted to make opportunities available on a local area basis, so that access was for all and not just the highly motivated pupil who will or can travel.
"It's not an elite programme, but is aimed at skills development, learning to be part of a team and developing a healthy lifestyle.
"We are targetting children by asking headteachers to select pupils who might not necessarily be the ones who would come forward on their own initiative. In other words, we are targetting kids who need a bit of a boost.
"The main focus is to give opportunities, and to create fun for pupils, which will feed back into school life," she says.
For Mr Hynd there is another, equally important benefit. "The idea of gathering all these local kids together is brilliant. It breaks the sectarian divide and promotes social interaction," he says.
"If that's only a spin-off, then it will be one of the greatest spin-offs possible since the west of Scotland is still rife with bigotry.
"Sports friendships can last a lifetime. It's a healthy, regular discipline offering movement skills for life, along with an appreciation of others who live in your area.
"There are no class divisions here. All the kids come to practise and we'll encourage them all to go on doing what they can as Wishaw or North Lanarkshire kids and not as Catholics or Protestants. Subconsciously it will have a great effect.
"I've always thought teaching children was about teaching children and nothing else."
Although crossing the "sectarian divide" is not one of the stated aims of the programme, its originators, John O'Dowd (North Lanarkshire's music adviser) and Jim Park (the New Opportunities Fund music co-ordinator) agree this was "part of the thinking".
Mr O'Dowd says: "We are getting denominational and non-denominational pupils to mix which will, we hope, create more of a community identity as all of North Lanarkshire's primary schools are involved."
Other barriers are being broken too. At Bellshill Academy, primary pupils are practising choral singing and instrumental playing. All seem at home in the secondary environment to which the programme introduces them as a matter of course.
The lively, not to say feisty, pupils declare the different schools they come from and, with cheery faces, introduce the pals they have made from other primaries. They all want to show off what they have learned, explicitly demanding lots of cheers and applause for their performances.
"Not only does it help with the primarysecondary liaison." says Mr Park, "but it will have a curriculum benefit if these pupils, coming up to secondary school, can already read music."
The specific aims of the music college are to introduce young people to music-making and help create a lifelong interest, to develop a range of skills in a structured environment, to provide opportunities which will help young people develop their intellectual, social and personal skills, to help them make a meaningful contribution to the artistic life of the community, to provide a means of fulfilment and enjoyment and to develop peer group co-operation and teamwork.
"All our programmes have clear curricular guidelines, such as the ability to sing in parts as well as in unison, to respond in rehearsals and to develop musical techniques and exchange views. There are definite learning outcomes," says Mr O'Dowd.
The classes use teaching methods derived from the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, based on teaching music through games. Seventy-five teachers are involved in the music college; 27 are primary teachers and the remainder are secondary and instrumental staff, all paid through NOF funding. Staff development in music is being led by Christopher Bell, conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra choir.
The sports college structure articulates at three levels: the aims of the first level "recreation groups" are similar to those of the music college; the second level "development groups" aim to extend interest and commitment to activity and focus on raising personal standards; and the third level "elite programme" sets personal performance goals and requires pupil participation in the planning of group goals.
Sports festivals will be organised, as will public concerts.
Both colleges, into which pupils matriculate (receiving embossed matriculation cards), require a minimum of 80 per cent attendance at the sessions.
But does the idea of an "elite" sports programme not go against the social inclusion ethos of the virtual college approach?
"Not at all," says John French, school sport development manager for North Lanarkshire. "It's not an elite model in that sense. It's simply about developing skills. For example, in the second and third years of the programme pupils will be able to be fast-tracked into new or established sports clubs if they are developing skills they want to pursue.
"We want to develop a sports lifestyle so that pupils can participate in a wider range of sports and so the programme is developing links with Sportscotland, with the Scottish Volleyball Association and with local clubs. It's about partnership and interface.
"We are determined that the programme will be sustained after the three-year NOF funding runs out. We are now appointing three primary teachers across North Lanarkshire to promote this in partnership with Sportscotland, the local health board and the local authority.
"We already have 100 per cent attendance at some centres.
"The programme must be maintained," he emphasises.
Mr O'Dowd says: "Most of our secondaries have a choir or a band and this programme will hopefully enhance those as well as community choirs.
"We're hoping that the expertise being employed from both primary and secondary sectors will have a cascade effect. I believe it will, as already we have 1,300 primary pupils involved.
"At the end of the three-year funding we hope to maintain the programme, to have a structure in place. Thanks to the efforts of the primary and secondary staff and of Christopher Bell, we should have enough primary teachers trained to keep the music college going and those pupils now in primary will feed into andor develop new secondary choirs and bands.
"We are quite simply creating the opportunity through all of this to build transferrable skills. It's about transferring expertise to other teachers and to pupils.
"We have always been confident that we can deliver this because of good teaching and because we have the expertise.
"Other local authorities are already looking at what we are doing."
Listening to the primary pupils at the Bellshill campus sing in part and in full harmony, it would seem Mr O'Dowd's confidence is well placed. Although they are only one month into the programme, the complex choral effects the pupils can already achieve is impressive. The positive knock-on effect to school and community choirs and to school bands seems assured, even at this early stage.
But the virtual college is experiencing teething problems, which is inevitable in an authority as large as North Lanarkshire. The logistics of organising transport across the authority are proving difficult, especially now that local bus companies have begun their busy summer season.
Whatever the problems, the commitment and dedication of those involved is obvious.
"This whole thing is a brilliant idea," says Mr Hynd. "It's bringing so many young people together. We know its value. We know it's working."