Breaking up is hard to do

17th November 2006 at 00:00
When Mainholm Academy had to be vacated this summer for safety reasons, its 490 pupils were spread among three other schools in what was intended to be a temporary move. Now there is some doubt. Douglas Blane reports on their experiences. Photograph by David Gordon

RED MAPLE trees and a slender hawthorn, planted behind Mainholm Academy, glow warmly in the evening sun as it sinks behind the green fields of Ayr racecourse. The peaceful scene outside the low brick building is in stark contrast to the unrest inside, where parents have met to tackle South Ayrshire education authority on the future of the school.

Built in the 1960s, Mainholm Academy closed in June for assessment of its gas, electricity and water supplies, which had been found non-compliant with modern safety standards. The 490 pupils - and staff - were spread among three other Ayr secondaries for a year, while the headteacher, John Happs, went to work for the authority.

Previous good practice for this situation was hard to find, says George Cooper, the senior depute headteacher at Ayr Academy. "We asked the Scottish Executive for guidance. They said nothing like this had been done before. So they would be interested to hear about our experiences."

Management teams at the three receiving academies - Ayr, Belmont and Kyle - developed their own approaches to absorbing the unexpected intake, while the authority's quality improvement officer, Chrissie Quinn, consulted pupils from all the schools. "We asked questions to guide our thinking, such as 'What can we do to help you fit in at your new school? Do you want to continue wearing the Mainholm uniform?'" she says.

It has been an unsettling time for everyone, but especially the Mainholm pupils, who have been uprooted from familiar surroundings and separated from friends. "We heard the pupils here were going to get us," says Andrew Carswell, an S2 pupil now at Ayr. "It didn't happen. In fact, I want to stay. I'm not going back to Mainholm."

Many of his schoolmates are not as sanguine about the move. "I miss my pals, and want to go back when Mainholm opens again," says Kerry Mackie (S4), after a week at Ayr Academy.

Mainholm pupils have had to make adjustments at all the schools, but even in the first few weeks there were signs that these were greater at some than others.

Kyle Academy received good reviews, with Mainholm pupils commenting on how pleasant the kids had been. "That first day I felt terrible," says Michaela Hedges (S4). "There was this big group of Kyle pupils just looking at us.

They came swarming towards us and I thought 'Oh no'. But they started shaking our hands and asking our names and they were really nice."

Empathy had been generated, it seems, in memorable lessons in which Kyle pupils had been asked to imagine how they would feel if transported to a strange school for a year. Some Kyle staff had taken the exercise further, informing their pupils that they had to move school.

"We panicked," says Emily Wylde (S2). "After about 10 minutes they told us it was all right. It was Mainholm that was coming to us."

The Mainholm pupils, accustomed to a small school and strong pastoral support, have found it harder to adapt to their new teachers. At their school, the staff had more time to chat and build relationships, "which made you want to work for them". Pupils at all three schools comment on the stricter teaching and size of their new surroundings. But there have been hints of deeper divides.

The River Ayr flows through the middle of the town, separating the south, with its shops and residential areas, from the north, where council housing prevails. Mainholm Academy is the only secondary school north of the river.

"They've got a problem here with the way we talk," says James O'Hara (S2), after a week at Belmont Academy. "The people here speak a bit more polite. But we just say 'Aye' and that. The teachers get angry and say 'That's not the way to speak.' "

Initial tension was also apparent among some Belmont pupils, who resented Mainholm pupils continuing to wear their uniforms, which was a choice given to them at all three schools. Many exercised it, aiming to retain their identity since they expected to return to Mainholm next session.

"I can see why they'd want to do that," says Scott Hogg (S2). "But they could maybe wear a Belmont tie while they're here. Ties aren't that expensive."

Sarah Robertson (S3) agrees. "It's like they're coming here and using our facilities but they don't want to be part of our school."

At the public meeting at Mainholm on October 25, the tensions have clearly not dissipated. Pupils still complain of teachers correcting the way they speak. More seriously, they talk of Belmont staff making comments that perpetuate a division. These include: "You are not at Mainholm now" and "What happened if you did that at Mainholm? Did they just pat you on the head and tell you not to do it again?"

As well as the treatment of pupils, uncertainty over the future of the school dominates the discussions. Assessment of the building is complete and the report has been leaked. An estimate of pound;14 million for repairs has convinced the community that the school will never open again.

Rumours have been circulating that discussions with developers are well advanced.

From the platform, the director of education, Mike McCabe, tells the packed hall of parents and carers: "It is absolute nonsense. No officer is involved in any discussion with anyone, nor is any elected member."

However, his inability to deny or confirm repeated assertions that the school will clearly not reopen after one year creates intense frustration.

"That decision will be taken at a council meeting in mid-November," he says. "But the decision on the building is not a decision on the future of the school. If we do not invest in the building, we are required to go to formal consultation on the future of provision."

South Ayrshire Council has been asked often in recent months to guarantee that there will continue to be a secondary school north of the river, but it has not been able to do so.

The lifelong learning convener, Pamela Paterson, is at the meeting but declined to share the platform, moving her seat instead into the audience.

She declines to "give a commitment now" that there will continue to be a school in north Ayr, saying: "You do not have the right to ask me that."

After the meeting, Mr McCabe draws a quiet breath before leaving the building. "It is tough, but it is a worthwhile exercise," he says. "We do have to be honest with people. We can't give guarantees.

"In South Ayrshire we are just beginning a process of open consultation with parents - which I think is unique - about school provision across the authority. The tension here between quantity and quality exists all over Scotland."

Mainholm parents have grown used to a small school with small classes, he says. "They feel their children have benefited from that. But the schools they attend now are very good schools.

"We are meeting different interest groups on different evenings, all fighting hard for what they want. What we want is for people to join us in deciding the priorities."

As car doors slam, the stormy meeting past, cold rain lashes the darkened windows of Mainholm Academy and the abandoned school awaits its fate.

What the parents say

Linne McPike, mother of four Mainholm pupils now at Belmont Academy "I have to battle with my kids every day now to get them to school. They have had to adjust to a new school and a different curriculum and ways of teaching. But that is not the worst of it. The teachers are making a difference between pupils. Some are saying Mainholm pupils are stupid. You can expect a bit of rivalry from kids at different schools, but for teachers to be saying Mainholm kids are stupid is unacceptable."

Karen Lapsley, mother of a Mainholm pupil now at Belmont Academy

"Our kids are being singled out; there's no doubt about it. They don't feel part of the school. We've heard a lot about how well people have reacted, but they should have been more pro-active. They could have seen a lot of this coming. They could have seen that our kids would not be going back after a year. They can see it now, but they are still not saying it."

Steven McTurk, father of one Mainholm pupil, now at Ayr Academy

"My daughter can go to a study group at Ayr to get extra tuition. But what about the kids who aren't in the top class? At Mainholm they could go once a week, whether they were in the lowest or the highest class, and get help.

"There should have been more planning. They should have thought about the problems kids might have. They are saying everything is fine. But it's not.

Our kids need help."

What the head says

John Happs, headteacher of Mainholm Academy

"We've talked to Mainholm kids at all three schools and found at least as many positives as negatives. In terms of being spoken to differently by teachers, I've passed this on to the heads, who are concerned and will deal with it where it exists. There should be no discrimination; heads will not condone it. But overall pupils are settling in well."

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