Pupils sitting their Standard grades at the end of S3? Sounds daunting, but those at Wallace Hall Academy, a School of Ambition, have become used to a new and flexible approach to their learning
Wallace hall Academy defies stereotype. There is a picturesque approach through gently arcing, snow-clad Dumfriesshire hills, to its setting in little Thornhill (population: not far into four figures). But the invention and industry in the school defy notions of a sleepy, rural idyll.
The school building, with its crumbling exterior exposing 1970s brickwork, lends an initial frisson of urban decay. In fact, there is a vigour for learning inside, which will doubtless be better served by a new building opening across the road by 2010.
If visitors have to recalibrate lazy preconceptions, then that matches the ethos of a school that demands flexibility. Most importantly, this shows itself in a new approach to the curriculum: the current batch of second years will be the first to sit their Standard grades at the end of S3.
"The pace of learning across a normal six years is very uneven," says Allan Douglas, the headteacher, explaining the earlier start on Standard grades.
"First and second year are quite leisurely, then it picks up in S3 and S4, and goes like that in S5." (He swishes his hand through the air).
Mr Douglas feels that "high-flyers" generally do well under any system, while those at the other end of the spectrum tend to get a lot of help. As acting depute head Trisha McCurrach points out, those most likely to lose out are often in-between. "The middle-ground have been the ones who got on with things, don't cause any bother, but maybe don't realise their potential."
Mr Douglas wanted to "pick up the pace" in the earlier years, with one main aim in mind. "The key for opening doors is the Higher, yet we spend so little time on it."
One telling example is given by Mrs McCurrach, a biology teacher, who feels that the "two-term" dash towards a Higher means a focus on science, to the detriment of "huge moral issues" thrown up by the subject.
The pioneering batch of second years appears unfazed by the increased demands placed on them, as 13-year-old Eddy Sayers makes clear: "My friends at other schools were saying they'd find it too hard. I was saying it's quite easy after you get used to it."
Already, pupils benefit from a less-than-rigid approach to the curriculum so that, for example, talented musicians take Advanced Higher music in fifth year, while linguists can attend other schools for Spanish classes.
Bringing forward Standard grades will make the upper years far more flexible. Under the existing system, if a cohort of 16 pupils included eight taking a subject at Higher and eight at Intermediate 2, they would be taught together. When future fourth years choose subjects alongside fifth and sixth years, however, there will be around 250 pupils - as opposed to 120 this year - making it easier to form classes of pupils at similar stages.
To help pupils prepare for starting Standard grades earlier, the school is ensuring that all first-year classes have a maximum of 20 pupils. All members of senior management, meanwhile, are taking S2 classes, a practice underlined as, mid-interview, Mr Douglas rushes off to take a chemistry lesson.
"We made a point of taking second-year classes, so that we're not saying this is the right thing to do but not trying it ourselves," says Mrs McCurrach.
The school is careful that less academic pupils are not left behind. An S2 science group, made up of pupils who, for a variety of reasons, would not flourish in certificated science classes, aims to stimulate interests that could prove useful in the workplace.
So, for example, the group might visit nearby Buccleuch Estate to measure grouse, or cultivate fish eggs. One boy, whose autism was severe enough that he had to be flanked by two screens in order to concentrate in class, has responded particularly well.
Wallace Hall eases progress through school by involving children before they even arrive as first years. With Mr Douglas keen to foster a 3-18 curriculum, languages teachers take classes at local primary schools, while the youngsters themselves visit the big school to take part in science lessons.
Once at Wallace Hall, they may be helped by a wide-ranging interpretation of what being a senior pupil entails. Far from whiling away time in a common room, some sixth years volunteer to help a younger pupil one-to-one, whom they will sit alongside in some classes and meet to discuss problems.
Some senior pupils take social education classes, usually in pairs and observed by a teacher. The link with younger pupils is mutually beneficial, as 17-year-old Robert Menzies, a British accordion champion who epitomises the school's strong musical tradition, says: "It's about getting more opportunities to take responsibility, to work with pupils, which helps with going to university."
Pupils are encouraged to take their skills outside the classroom, whether that means making presentations with the Powerpoint computer package at parents' nights, or, as in one recent case, organising a concert. Pupils came up with the event themselves and raised pound;1,000 for a new electric piano; this was matched by the school so that a sound mixer could also be bought.
Nick Riley is the leading learner for music, art and PE - the term is preferred to the more prosaic "faculty principal" - and believes that projects driven by pupils have huge value. "There needs to be a structure for this within the curriculum, rather than it being extra-curricular. When something is generated by kids, they have got a tremendous way of getting their peers to support them."
Wallace Hall's questioning of standard practice is evidence of Mr Douglas's determination that the relative stability of this rural school, which has existed in some form since 1723, does not lead to complacency.
"Some schools are much more challenging in terms of the types of kids teachers work with. In a rural school like this, you've got to provide a challenging environment for pupils and staff so they don't become too comfortable, and staff feel professionally fulfilled."
Wallace Hall was doing well before it became a school of ambition; a 2004 report by HM Inspectorate of Education concluded that its "high performance, the strong record of improvement and very effective leadership" meant no return visit was needed.
The pound;300,000 funding from Schools of Ambition is helping to equip the school for the changes ahead, so that, for example, all 30 teaching areas have electronic whiteboards years ahead of schedule.
Mr Douglas said: "I'd hope that, within a few years, the curriculum will be revamped in order to accommodate the whole range of different children, building in lots of the good ideas in A Curriculum for Excellence."
Schools of Ambition has not helped turn an ailing school around, but accelerated existing aspirations. "It already was a school of ambition,"
says Mrs McCurrach. "We just didn't have the title."