It's like a detective story with a twist. We know whodunnit from the start - the staff and pupils at St Luke's High, East Renfrewshire. But we have no idea how. The briefest glance at a chart of the top 20 state secondaries in Scotland according to attainment (see page 20) shows that St Luke's is extraordinary. With its free meal entitlement of 21.8 per cent - nearly five times the average of the other 19 schools - it has no business being there among schools in the leafy suburbs.
But anyone looking for easy answers is in for a disappointment. "There is no magic bullet," says headteacher Patricia Scott. "We don't sprinkle fairy dust. It's about the school ethos, hard work, high expectations, commitment, distributed leadership and moving forward on all fronts."
But what does that actually mean? What do they do at St Luke's to get the best out of young people?
First impressions on a visit to look for clues are less than overwhelming. A bare, windowless brick wall greets the visitor turning into the school's car park, perched high on the hill above Barrhead. But St Luke's hides its charms. Inside it is light and airy, with wide windows looking out over the Levern Valley and the dark curves of the Campsies beyond.
The first clue arrives quickly, when Mrs Scott talks of her pupils' achievements and her face lights up with pleasure and pride. "Our young scientists are just back from doing fantastically well at the Big Bang finals in London. We have a team of girls who have just won a regional public speaking event and are off to the UK finals in May."
One of those girls provides clue number two: "In most classes you've got good students, some who misbehave and a whole lot in the middle," says Megan Crampsey (S6). "Some schools favour the good ones, punish the bad ones and forget about the middly ones. In this school, everybody gets treated the same."
Help is always there when you need it, says Tony Carlin (S6). "Last night, Mr Bell stayed behind after school for an hour-and-a-half to help with my English dissertation. I only had to ask him. All the teachers at this school are like that, in every department."
It's not just those who ask for help who get it, says Jordann Connaghan (S6). "I know there are pupils who have no interest in subjects, but their teachers are still pushing them. No one is forgotten here. No one is left behind."
It's about teachers looking beyond their subject, says Mrs Scott. "Our staff give pupils outstanding support and the pupils are aware of that. They understand the aspirations we have for them. Many have seen big brothers and sisters achieving. So now there is an expectation that children will do well here."
A culture at the same time aspirational and supportive is the foundation of St Luke's success, says Mrs Scott. "But underneath that are the structures and strategies, rigour and information that make it work. We're robust about that. We have systems to track how everyone is performing in every subject, which we share with the young people. They see where they are and what to do to improve."
In a similar way, an informal culture of professional dialogue and sharing good practice is underpinned by a formal system of learning visits to other classes, which gain their focus from the current school development plan and feed into the following one. "Staff talk to each other about learning," says Mrs Scott. "They share their experiences.
"There is clear leadership from the top but genuine distributed leadership, too. We don't just have principal teachers leading on learning. We also have unpromoted learning and teaching co-ordinators in every faculty. They get right into the guts of what goes on in the classroom. They give us consistency across the school and help us improve."
Two principal teachers are responsible for learning and teaching across the school: Raymond Bell, principal teacher for Assessment is for Learning, and Lyndsay-Ann Allan, responsible for enterprise and creativity. "Some schools see enterprise and Assessment is for Learning as add-ons," says Mr Bell. "Here, they're very much part of learning and teaching.
"I chair the monthly meetings of the learning and teaching co-ordinators. We develop and deliver CPD sessions. We've set up a line of communication between staff and pupils. All that means we can communicate, evaluate and make improvements in learning and teaching across the school."
Lines of communication with pupils were created through each co-ordinator being assigned a group of pupils from each year and interviewing them, explains learning and teaching co-ordinator and modern languages teacher Clare Peden. "So, for instance, we would ask how they saw learning intentions and success criteria being used in lessons by all their teachers. All that information was then fed back into department and faculty meetings and discussed there."
Assessment is for Learning provides a conceptual framework that works across the curriculum, says learning and teaching co-ordinator and English teacher Adele Simpson. "So there's a consistency of approach in different subjects on learning and teaching - a consistency the pupils also clearly see."
An audit of teacher perceptions threw up discrepancies between teachers and pupils, she says. "There was confusion about success criteria. Pupils weren't seeing how the feedback they got in class related to them. That told us we needed to emphasise them more, right through a piece of work. We needed to make more of that language for learning."
CPD was developed and organised in response to this discovery, specifically to address success criteria, learning intentions, feedback and questioning. "We offered that to all St Luke's staff and those in the rest of the cluster," says Mr Bell.
Insights from these audits have been more widely useful, says chemistry teacher and learning and teaching co-ordinator Margaret Anne Johnstone. "Pupils' thoughts on how they are taught and how they would like to be taught are valuable. In the science faculty, we have used them to write a consistency of practice document and share it with the rest of the school through the co-ordinator meetings - where we all bring what works from our own departments.
Information, organisation, learning and teaching, culture, ethos, distributed leadership, CPD, learning visits and sharing good practice all help make St Luke's special. But they are not what the pupils talk about.
"It's the interactions with teachers I really like," says Jordann. "I've noticed right through my time here that pupils get individual attention," says Marianne Gallanagh (S6). "Part of it is smaller class sizes, particularly in sixth year. But it's more than that. All the teachers here are more than willing to talk with you and work with you."
The talk doesn't have to be about learning, says Francis Capaldi (S6). "It's the banter I like. If you meet a teacher in the library and they've a spare five minutes, they will sit and chat. Some of them are pretty funny - like Mr McKinney, who is always quoting big chunks of Shakespeare."
Creating a culture for success is about getting systems, structures and strategies right, says Mrs Scott. "But it is also about looking at individual children, asking what their strengths and interests are and trying to maximise them.
"I am totally committed to this school. I feel it's a huge responsibility. It's about the future of this child, this family, this community. For many teachers, it's their life's work. It is just so satisfying when, after six years, you have young people who are confident enough to stand up, speak out and think for themselves. Our kids are fantastic."
VIEW FROM THE CLASSROOM: WHAT MAKES ST LUKE'S SPECIAL
- Margaret Anne Johnstone, chemistry teacher and learning and teaching co- ordinator
"A lot of it is about excellent relationships - between staff and with pupils. That helps greatly with sharing good practice and feeding back both ways with pupils. It means we can drive forward with everything we want to achieve."
- Lyndsay-Ann Allan, principal teacher of enterprise and creativity
"We have high expectations. It's about wanting the best for every kid, caring that they understand what they can achieve and helping them realise they can achieve."
- Adele Simpson, learning and teaching co-ordinator and English teacher
"The quality of professional dialogue is very high. There is real devolved leadership. An unpromoted mentor, for instance, organised our whole-school session on experiences and outcomes in health and well-being. That makes us feel we all have responsibility."
- Clare Peden, learning and teaching co-ordinator and modern languages teacher
"We are good at going forward with new initiatives and coming up with new ideas. The learning visits organised by the learning and teaching co- ordinators work very well. People are comfortable with them because of the culture here. It's about development, not criticism."
- Raymond Bell, principal teacher for Assessment is for Learning
"There is no set way to introduce new ideas like cross-cutting themes. But in this school, we have never been afraid to try something and have it not work. So we're constantly evolving and developing. New things present challenges but they don't stop us. We just keep going forward."
ENTERPRISE AWARD SCHEME
With the aim of embedding enterprise across the curriculum, Lyndsay-Ann Allan, principal teacher of enterprise and creativity, has set up an awards scheme.
"You get bronze for activities within your classroom, silver if it's a year group in your department, gold if it's cross-curricular, and platinum if you bring in external partners," she says.
"These awards really motivate the pupils. But they're also quite exciting for the teachers, aren't they Clare?"
Modern languages teacher Clare Peden laughs. "It's true. We just got gold for a European Day of Languages with the whole first year. Maybe next time we'll go for platinum by getting in someone from the European Parliament."
Turning subject specialists onto enterprise means knocking on doors, says Miss Allan. "If I see a nice display in a corridor, I'll go in and ask the teacher if they've applied for an award. I'll speak to the pupils, too. They like the recognition, learning in a fun way and connecting with the outside world. So I get them to nag their teachers to apply. "That works."