In a new monthly series on Schools of Ambition, we look at how Burnhouse, the only special school listed, is progressing
A tour of Burnhouse School in Whitburn, West Lothian, is halted every few moments as each door is unlocked with a key on a large bunch that all teachers and members of the support staff carry. It is one of the few hints, as you walk through the deserted corridors of the drab building, that this is possibly West Lothian's most challenging special school.
Situated on the edge of Whitburn, Burnhouse hosts pupils from all over the local authority. Some are offenders, many are violent, most prone to vandalism; none can cope with being in a mainstream school.
"The doors are not locked to keep the pupils in; the doors open from the inside," explains Margaret Gibson, headteacher. "It's to stop interruptions, to stop the pupils going walkabout into other classes and disturbing them."
Burnhouse is for students with severe emotional, social and behavioural difficulties. It currently caters for 28 full-time pupils and 24 off-campus pupils and gives support to a further 40 within the mainstream system. Most are boys, but the number of girls being referred is growing, with four full-time and two off campus; three left at Christmas. Yet the school is calm. Pupils are in class or out on vocational workshops. And thanks to the locked doors, they remain there, for when they do decide to wander about there is nowhere for them to go except out of school.
"We allow the pupils to leave, to go out and calm down. It is what they need sometimes," continues Mrs Gibson. "Many of our pupils are from chaotic family backgrounds, and they just need to let off a little steam."
But it hasn't always been like this. Mrs Gibson arrived at Burnhouse in January 2005, just three months after the school had received a damning report from HM Inspectorate of Education. The inspectors identified important weaknesses across the school, from learning and teaching to assessment of pupils' needs.
There was no appropriate culture for learning, the curriculum was too narrow, expectations were too low, pupils' needs were not identified, accommodation was unsuitable, resources too limited, leadership weak - the list went on. Pupils were not attending class and teachers were not teaching them when they did.
"It was a very negative report," says Jim Matthews, an English teacher who arrived at the school around the time of the inspection. "But, over the past two years, I've seen the school go from the worst it was to what it is now. There has been extraordinary change. Raised voices are rare now and there is more of a sense of co-operation."
Since arriving, Mrs Gibson has fulfilled her remit, which was to create an education unit that actually taught its pupils, rather than simply contained them. She was also charged with balancing vocational and academic teaching, so that pupils were not simply dumped in a mechanics or painting and decorating workshop.
On a visit by HMIE in October 2006, the inspector ticked off on almost every point for action. The school and local authority, she declared, had made very good progress on three of the points for action and good progress with the other two. The HMIE will not be returning to the school.
Mrs Gibson is keen to promote the support of the council as helping transform the school, but she admits none of it would have happened, had Burnhouse not won School of Ambition status in the first round of the initiative in 2005. Over three years, pound;300,000 can make a big difference to a school that needs a radical shake-up, especially when most of it is invested in staff rather than equipment.
"I've spent most of the money on staff training," says Mrs Gibson, "to allow for intense staff development in critical skills practice, enterprise training, personal centred planning and restorative justice across the service."
She also recruited further teachers and support staff. The limitations to the curriculum have been addressed, although there are still no facilities for art or a modern language. Expectations are up, with some students working towards their Standard grades at General and Credit levels. Mr Matthews plans to present two pupils early for Standard grade and expects them to make Credit. The pupils seem to like it.
"English is better at this school; learning is easier here," says Callum Johnstone, 15. He is doing a Standard grade in music as well as vocational training in painting and decorating.
It is a long way from pre-inspection days, when the most ambitious went for Foundation level. One student is even taking Highers, a new experience for the school. One or two others may follow his example next year.
Another change instigated by Mrs Gibson was to take control of the referral system. Previously, mainstream schools recommended pupils for either the education or the vocational unit, known as the alternative timetable. If a school recommended the latter option, a pupil might never have set foot in the school.
"Many were recommended to do the alternative curriculum, and Burnhouse was treated as a dumping ground," says Mrs Gibson.
Now all referrals go through her and she assesses each pupil to formulate a balanced educational response. Fewer pupils do purely vocational training, and most are working towards a qualification. The focus is clearly on A Curriculum for Excellence, with a flexible approach to certification.
"We will take bits from different places. So, for instance, a Standard grade English student may be able to achieve a Higher core skill in communication," says Mrs Gibson. "It helps raise the young people's self-esteem, which is often very low. They may never have achieved anything before."
In ICT, led by the business and ICT teacher, Nick Killane, there is a variety of awards now available to pupils, from word processing to desktop publishing, courtesy of the eDCC computer certification scheme. Mr Killane has also developed links with private companies, in particular the IT giant Oracle, which has helped build on the school's technology resources.
The pupil who is studying for Highers, has been working with Oracle and may even attend the company's own training academy this year. He has plans to go to university, which - if he does - would be another first for Burnhouse.
It helps that teaching is now highly pupil-focused with a maximum of four per class, all with access to the most up-to-date technology.
"I would never have done so well at my old school because I didn't have such focused support from my teachers. I wasn't on top of any of my subjects," says the pioneering Higher pupil, who can-not be named. "Here it is a very personalised approach."
Along with the academic push, the school has invested in enterprise education. Linking up with companies such as Oracle has helped, but students have also been motivated by an internal points system.
Attendance and achievement are all rewarded with points that can eventually be converted into cash. One pupil, who has been running the tuck shop for the past few months, was recently accompanied to the shops by a key worker to convert his points into a new mobile phone.
The changes have contributed to a new atmosphere at the school, one where success is a goal and achievement rewarded. The pupils are more satisfied and the teachers motivated and committed. Their approach is friendly and patient, thanks to the extensive training and support given. And the staff has been stable for a year. Only a maths teacher was wanted, but even that post has been filled with a new teacher due to get his set of keys in February.
"We've got miles to go yet to achieve what I want, and we may never get there, but at least we are on the road," says Mrs Gibson.
Persuading employers to link with Burnhouse School so that pupils have an opportunity to experience a real work environment has proved a challenge.
Not many are keen to let the "bad boys of Burnhouse" in.
So the school came up with an alternative - working with the council, in particular, the housing and building division. The result is a pilot, due to be launched this month, that will ensure pupils get a taste of all aspects of housing and building, from painting and decorating to plumbing.
"The pupils here are narrow-minded about what they want to do with their lives, because they have so little experience of all that is on offer in the workplace," says Liz Speirs, principal teacher for integrated learning.
"I hope, by letting them see the different jobs within the housing department alone, that they realise they have a choice."
The first step of the programme will be five Friday morning sessions where pupils will be able to sample the elements of housing and make an informed choice about what they want to do. They will be able to apply for work experience jobs, which will be advertised.
If successful, the pupils will begin a block of four, or possibly five, weeks of Friday morning placements, followed by one or two blocks of five days or five mornings within one speciality. "We will place one pupil within each craft, as they behave better than when in pairs or a group,"
says Ms Speirs.
The placement will give pupils the chance to gain craft skills, improve their self-esteem by showing themselves and others that they can do this, and possibly gain a certificate.
The jewel in the crown, however, and the aspect of Building New Futures which Ms Speirs is most excited about, is the potential for longer placements for those successfully completing their initial ones.
"The aim is for the council to offer these young people apprenticeships within their department, so that they have jobs and training to go to after school and avoid falling into the Neet group," she says.