Can schools help create a more equal society? In the first of four articles, Ian Nicol visits Doon Academy in Ayrshire to find out
Swing away from Ayr and drive down the Doon valley to Dalmellington and you will find Doon Academy. It looks like a stereotypical example of rural isolation, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Doon Academy has a roll of about 380 pupils in S1 to S6, plus infill adult students, and a technology-based management and information studies course run by East Ayrshire Open Access for adult employment seekers. The school handbook claims "increased personal contact that larger schools cannot match", and the school lives up to this policy.
Headteacher Fred Wildridge personally writes on each pupil report card twice a year. Every P7 teacher in the associated primaries of Bellsbank, Patna, Dalmellington and Littlemill responds by letter to former pupils who write at the end of S1, detailing their progress and experiences in the secondary school. In justifying the time involved, Penny McCreath of Bellsbank Primary sums up the ethos of Doon Academy by saying: "The children need to know that you still care."
But caring by itself is never enough - what about the educational agenda? The Doon Academy approach is based on achieving consensus on issues, then developing a joint response. "When all the headteachers are working together and planning in the room, the atmosphere becomes electric," says Sue Angus, depute director of education for East Ayrshire.
Doon Academy knows where it fits. The school defines its problems as being due to geographical isolation, poverty linked to long-term unemployment, under-achievement, lack of individual and collective aspirations and a general dearth of social, recreational and cultural facilities in the local area. Mr Wildridge admits that their pupils "aspire to mediocrity - there is a culture of embarrassment about achievement for the individual".
To promote a climate of aspiration and success, the school has developed a positive behaviour programme to reward co-operation in class, so that more effective learning can take place. Good behaviour earns credits within the framework of six-week target blocks, leading to merit certificates and ultimately a diploma of excellence. These achievements are celebrated at an end-of-year awards ceremony and qualify pupils for benefits such as special discos and school expeditions.
Ellen Townsen, the parent of an S1 boy, says, "He's thrilled to bits with his certificate. He feels he's achieved something and they all learn better. " Depute headteacher Patrick O'Rourke says that 90 per cent of pupils are now achieving certificates within two weeks of beginning the target block.
A joint approach in the cluster primaries has resulted in all P7 pupils and their teachers spending every Friday morning in activities in the secondary school. Primary staff justify this use of 10 per cent of curriculum time on the grounds that it enhances the quality of learning in the 5-14 programme.
The children have access to information technology, CDT equipment and science resources, and the arrangement allows the skills and techniques of the secondary specialists to feed into the primary curriculum. Winifred Younger of Dalmellington Primary School sees the transfer of process skills in scientific investigations as only one of the benefits. There was also impressive interaction with other areas, including CDT.
All the P7 teachers meet to discuss common standards in pupil assessment. "Ideas from other primary teachers help me to sort out what we're doing, " says Ms McCreath. Mr Wildridge finds that it also helps the secondary school to be confident of consistent standards of assessment in English and maths across all their associate primary schools.
A supported study programme has been established to address low aspirations and under-achievement, originally with European and Strathclyde regional funding, now with the support of East Ayrshire. Already this is helping to improve motivation and self-esteem, and leading to better Scottish Certificate of Education exam results and higher aspirations across the pupil population.
With full IT facilities, the school opens for supported study on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Between 30 and 60 pupils normally attend what is an exercise in ethos building and forming relationships as much as learning support.
Assistant head Bob Reid has no doubt that the school is achieving its objectives. "Our exam results over the past five years have consistently improved. I didn't think they could continue to improve, but they did. I find it quite amazing."
The supported study scheme has also included residential programmes during study leave time before exams, when there is the greatest need for support. These provide intensive subject teaching, help overcome isolation and encourage cooperation across the peer group.
Sarah Murray, who hopes to do physiotherapy at Glasgow Caledonian University, says the practical course work helped her get a grade 1 in biology. Rona Swindon, chair of the school board, says her son's results "improved greatly".
Another success story for the school has been a mentoring scheme, with business mentors ranging from the local authority to British Aerospace in Ayr. Mr Wildridge sees the support of the business community as essential for regenerating an area chronically depressed by the decline of the mining industry and an absence of career opportunities for pupils and parents. "We need to change the way parents think as much as youngsters."
The school also aims to foster enterprising skills and attitudes through an Achievers International Scheme, which provides experience of business transactions over the Internet. Senior pupil Denise Lohel is company secretary for a school enterprise which markets greetings cards with Scottish themes and landscapes to the USA, via their linked company in Dodge County High School. "In my future career, having this in my background will help a great deal, " she says.
The school is now discussing with a neighbouring crystal manufacturer the possibility of producing designs to be engraved on glass ware. Principal teacher of art John MacKenzie welcomes the new business culture: "Our hope is to build on Scottish links in the export market and the success of films like Braveheart. Our design work doesn't often get to the production stage. Here it will go on into marketing and selling."
More broadly, Mr Wildridge sees the cluster schools working with the local authority, Enterprise Ayrshire, local business and international funding agencies to deliver a futuristic vision for the regeneration of the Doon Valley.
Ms Angus says that at Doon Academy "there's a real willingness to make it all work, to get a partnership with other schools and the community to ensure that education makes a real contribution to the social and economic regeneration of the area. This would involve the corporate support of East Ayrshire council - and it should lead to the growth of industry, access to jobs and additional provision from pre-five right into higher and further education."
As head and depute head, Mr Wildridge and Mr O'Rourke were concerned that Doon Academy pupils saw themselves and their school as being less worthy than those in fashionable areas. This is clearly a problem. But if there is a hierarchy of Scottish schools that deliver quality in education, Doon Academy must stand among the best. "They are a very committed group of teachers and they work exceptionally hard," says Ms Swindon. She got it in one.
* Next week: Forres Academy, Moray