The arts of going from run-down to cool
if we want the inside story on Dundee's Braeview Academy we should hang around in the staffroom, a teacher jokes as I wait to meet head Brenda Hadcroft.
As if to prove the point, an invigilator who has been monitoring exams at the school for the past 11 years, since her own children were pupils, enters the room. She remembers invigilators at one time were kitted out with walkie-talkies just in case "something went wrong". One gets the impression pupil behaviour, not running out of paper or pens, was the main concern.
By and large pupils did not wear school uniform, she continues, and instead wore "gang colours". It could be intimidating, she admits, but today Braeview Academy is a totally different school. It is calmer and the change has come about thanks to good leadership, she feels.
Brenda Hadcroft arrived as its headteacher in January 2005 in the wake of a devastating HMIE report. While parents surveyed by the inspectors seemed happy, those in close contact - the staff and pupils - were far from content.
Overall, the inspectors found pupils displayed "little sense of pride in the school". There were "frequent incidents of bad behaviour", they reported; pupils were "frequently late", attendance was well below the national average and there was a high number of exclusions.
More than two-thirds of the staff, meanwhile, did not think the school was well led. Staff absence was high and there were long-term vacancies in several departments.
The quality of attainment was deemed "fair" at S1-2 but "unsatisfactory" at S3-6.
"The school went through a bad patch and had lost its way, but it was obvious it was just having a rough time and had potential," says Ms Hadcroft, who was previously head at Coatbridge High in North Lanarkshire and Immanuel College in Bradford.
By last year that potential had been unleashed and HMIE called off its engagement with the school, stating in its follow-up report in April: "Many key aspects of the school's work had improved since the initial inspection, and some features had been transformed."
When Ms Hadcroft arrived at Braeview Academy, around 12 teaching posts were vacant. "I did a lot of teaching initially," she remembers.
The key to the transformation, she says, was finding something the school was good at and building on it. That something was the arts.
Ms Hadcroft wanted to make dance, drama and music "cool", she says. She saw them as a means of improving pupils' self-esteem and self-confidence, given the deprived backgrounds many come from (26 per cent of the 650 pupils at Braeview are entitled to free school meals).
"If you can't be confident, you can't do anything," she says.
She also wanted to use the performing arts to lift the pupils who had been left reeling by the "really hurtful" press their school had received.
"Because everybody was constantly going on about how dreadful the school was, the pupils had started to believe it themselves."
One day, the press reported Ms Hadcroft had introduced a "no exclusions" policy; the next, they accused her of excluding 64 pupils ahead of an HMIE inspection.
"It was just nonsense," she says, clarifying that her true position is that exclusion is sometimes necessary but a last resort.
Gradually, however, "nice things happened". The school gained its very own secret benefactor who paid for Pounds 15,000-worth of flat screen TVs to be installed and offered financial assistance. But one of the key turning points, she says, was becoming a School of Ambition in June 2005. Braeview was in the first wave of the programme (which will cease next year) and received a visit from the then education minister, Peter Peacock.
"There was going to be this Pounds 300,000 (three years' ambition money). The pupils just did not believe somebody would choose us - why?"
The cash allowed Ms Hadcroft to redouble her efforts to push forward the arts. The music department, which was "very run-down", with one bass guitar per class and old keyboards, was kitted out with new equipment; a classroom was turned into a drama studio; and the school's Pounds 180,000 Ambition Hall was created out of a "drab 1970s assembly hall".
Today, Ambition Hall is still used to host assemblies, but can be transformed into a hi-tech 200-seat theatre. And boards listing past head boys and girls, school dux and headteachers now hang on the walls to give a sense of history and, in the case of past leaders, to "show that people stay", says Ms Hadcroft.
All S1-2 pupils study drama and will now have the chance to go on to study Higher dance and Higher drama.
Another important element of the turnaround has been the alternative curriculum. It helps keep pupils engaged, says depute head, Theresa Little.
The school has a hairdressing salon and a dance studio, and a fitness suite opened just a couple of months ago.
There is also a garden tended by pupils keen to hone their horticultural skills. (It is out of bounds at the moment because oystercatcher chicks have hatched and need time to grow.)
Then there's the garage, which Ms Hadcroft stumbled upon one day while on lunch duty.
"The question isn't so much `how do you find a garage?' as `how did you lose it in the first place?'" she says, laughing.
The facility was locked up and forgotten when the common curriculum was introduced, she says, and all the "wonderful courses" available in the 1970s disappeared. But now, with the renewed emphasis on vocational education, it has been resurrected and pupils study motor vehicle maintenance there, under the guidance of staff from Dundee College, who also conduct the teaching in the hairdressing salon.
In terms of the school's own staffing, that has been stable since 2006- 07.
"You have to know how to choose staff. We've made some fabulous appointments over the years - that's been a very major factor."
New principal teachers were having a "positive impact", said the last HMIE report. Meanwhile, newly-qualified teachers were having "an energising effect on staff morale".
Eleanor Paul, principal teacher of music, came to the school two years ago. When she was interviewed, she says, Ms Hadcroft told her she wanted to hear music everywhere, so she has set about trying to make that happen.
Paul Douglas, principal teacher of religious and moral education, came to Braeview looking for a challenge in 2005.
"I don't think schools come any more challenging than Braeview was at that time," he says.
The key to the changes has been getting the relationship between staff and pupils right, he believes.
Now Ms Hadcroft believes the school has reached the point where there are positive pupil role models in the senior school who are not only engaging in the performing arts, but also achieving academically. These pupils will pull the younger ones up with them, she says.
Last summer, Braeview Academy got its best set of results since the 2004 report. The school, however, is still - and always will be - a work in progress, she says. It is a point which chimes with the inspectors' comment that, while there had been great improvement, "much remained to be done to raise attainment".
Senior pupils who have lived through the changes note the difference in their school. Ms Hadcroft does not tolerate "bad people", says S6 pupil Vickie Culbert, and there are "more opportunities" now. "We are more of a team," she continuies. "We are not working against each other."
S5 pupils say that "everybody used to be in trackies", and when they arrived at the school in S1, it was a "dingy wee place", but not any more. Their favourite addition to the school is the Ambition Hall.
It may be usurped, however, in pupils' affections by forthcoming attractions. There are plans for an orchard, to be tended by pupils, in the school's extensive grounds, and for a pipeband.
A fundraising effort is also underway to buy a minibus. So far, the school has just 53 pence of the Pounds 24,000 required but, as Ms Hadcroft points out, they have faced up to greater challenges and triumphed.
BRAEVIEW ACADEMY INSPECTION REPORTS
The majority of pupils felt behaviour was poor and that they were not being treated fairly and equally by staff
A third of pupils felt the school did not deal effectively with bullying
Less than a third of staff felt there was mutual respect between staff and pupils, indiscipline was dealt with effectively or the school was well led
Pupils were "frequently late" for school and class
Attendance was well below the national average
A "significant minority" of pupils had a high level of unauthorised absence
Frequent incidents of bad behaviour disrupted work and pupils were often removed from class
Behaviour in classes, corridors, toilets and around the school grounds was poor
Overall expectations of pupils' levels of attainment and achievement were unsatisfactory
At S4-6, for almost all measures, Braeview was the lowest-performing school when compared with schools which had similar characteristics
Many key aspects of the school's work had been improved and some "transformed"
There was now a calm and purposeful learning environment in the school, and the quality of teaching was improving
Staff and pupil morale had "improved greatly"
Pupil behaviour had improved
Pupils wore their uniforms with pride and their achievement and self- confidence had improved
Curriculum improvements were beginning to impact positively on the attendance and behaviour of more challenging pupils
Staff vacancies and shortages had been addressed appropriately
Staff attendance levels had improved
The headteacher had been successful in establishing a clear, shared vision for the school
Much remained to be done to raise attainment but the attainment of pupils at S1-2 had improved, giving good reason for optimism.