From anarchy to law and order
This week, however, the follow-up report by inspectors shows that the school - once dubbed "the Alcatraz of the north" - has broken from the chains of its past.
In January 2006, a highly critical report said parents thought discipline was poor and the school was badly led. Staff agreed. The majority had no confidence in the senior management team which, inspectors said, lacked cohesion. Following the inspection, the situation deteriorated further. Newspapers reported a riot and the head of the parent council said "anarchy" reigned.
However, having revisited the school in September, inspectors discovered that, under the leadership of a new acting head, good or very good progress has been made towards meeting five of the seven main points on which they had demanded action. The report noted that the "morale of staff and pupils had improved". And in stark contrast to last year's inspection report, the senior management team have been praised. Far from lacking cohesion, HMIE found they "work well as a team" and "have a positive impact on the school".
Jim Sutherland, acting head, who arrived at the school 16 months ago, was found to have "improved the leadership of the school significantly" and to have "the capacity to improve the school further".
Progress was less rapid when it came to ensuring greater consistency and rigour in the school's approaches to improving its work. But it was found to be adequate. The one enduring weakness identified by inspectors was the school building and facilities.
"The Alcatraz of Lochaber High" - the description of former education minister Peter Peacock - presented the inspectors with water leaking into many of the buildings, classrooms in need of refurbishment and broken floor tiles which were a safety hazard. These issues will begin to be tackled next year, according to Mr Sutherland. In April, pound;12million of work is scheduled to start to "demolish, renovate and build a school fit for this century".
Already the school is unrecognisable, says Moira Tregaskis, the chair of the parent council, who has two sons at the school. "The children were not safe in the school," she said. "There was a lot of violence and bullying which the teachers could do nothing about because there was no structure or leadership. It was not a nice place to be educated."
Dr Tregaskis, a GP in Fort William, was about to send her older son to private school when Mr Sutherland arrived. Within weeks, she said, things had started to improve: "The school has been transformed - that's the only word for it."
Mr Sutherland, who was headteacher at Kinlochleven High until he was seconded to Lochaber, said: "When I arrived, the building blocks of a good staff and friendly, polite pupils were already in place."
His main challenge, he said, was to create a more positive climate. The old "demerit system" that saw pupils losing points for bad behaviour was replaced with a system that encouraged and rewarded good behaviour. Mr Sutherland also enforced the school dress code of black and white. "After the summer, I let it be known that it was expected that the dress code be adhered to. It was explained that it was a visible sign pupils were ready for and signed up to change."
There is more to do, he admitted. The school needs to re-evaluate its core aims and values, for instance - however, that will be for the permanent head to tackle.
Interviews for the post will take place later this month and, just days before Christmas, Mr Sutherland will find out if he has the job.
POINTS OF PROGRESS
Introduce robust arrangements for ensuring the health and safety of pupils and recording child protection incidents.
Improve the effectiveness of leadership.
Ensure the curriculum flexibility arrangements meet the needs of, and provide clear education gain for, all.
Continue to improve attainment and achievement, especially at S3 and S4.
Improve learning and teaching as outlined in the January 2006 report, especially in French.
Ensure greater consistency and rigour in the school's approaches to improving its work.
Ensure that the major refurbishment programme takes place as planned?