Garnock Academy's experiment in starting exam course options in the January of S2 has meant fewer disaffected pupils and improved behaviour, not to mention academic success. Raymond Ross reports.
It may have been an organisational nightmare, but radical changes to the S2 timetable at Garnock Academy, in Kilbirnie, North Ayrshire, have really paid off.
In what appears to be a unique initiative, the school starts pupils on external exam courses in the January of S2 in all subjects except mathematics and English (which are started in June of S2).
This initiative, introduced in the 2002-03 session, involves S2 pupils making their option choices in December and starting on Standard grade or National Qualifications courses at the beginning of the spring term, which gives them a six-month start on most pupils.
The aim is to increase the pace of learning in S1-S2 and raise attainment.
By giving pupils curriculum choices early, the school hopes to improve their motivation, reduce pupil disaffection and enhance discipline and ethos.
"We believe the Christmas changeover is unique," says headteacher Brian McNaught. "I know that Keith Grammar in Moray starts pupils on course choices at the end of S1, but we felt that was a wee bit early. We feel happier with our pupils making choices based on 18 months in secondary school, rather than just a year. We wanted to up the pace of learning without impacting on the 5-14 curriculum too much."
Three subject departments - drama, music and chemistry - have also begun to fast-track some pupils, presenting them for exams at the end of S3, with promising results. Of the children presented for exams in S3 last session, all 11 music pupils attained credits at Standard grade. Out of 34 drama pupils, nine gained credit passes, 24 general passes and one a foundation pass. All but one of 43 chemistry candidates for Intermediate 1 passed, 31 at band A.
Music is the department which has pushed furthest along the new tracks and has had greatest success in Standard grade results. There was no marked difference between the results of the 11 fast-tracked S3 pupils and the S4 contingent. Out of a total of 57 candidates, 51 attained credit.
Maturity was a concern but the only perceived difference between the pupils was that the S3s were "certainly more nervous" when it came to the practical element of the exam (but all achieved grade 1).
Fast-tracking has meant more work for the teachers, with an extra hour of supported study every week for the selected pupils, but Mae Murray, the principal teacher of music and drama, believes the pupils enjoy their work more and are more creative.
"You see them getting more enjoyment. There's more opportunity for them to develop their skills and make presentations of their choice," she says.
"The bottom line is they have more time and I have more time. It's to our mutual benefit."
The pupils are well supported by class teachers and instrumental staff and by their parents. "One of our new S4 pupils already has her Associated Board grade 5, so she'll be doing her Higher in S4 with full parental support," says Miss Murray.
Having more time to study for external exams as a result of the early start means the pupils can be put through Associated Board music exams alongside S4 work, going up to grade 5, a level equivalent to the Higher Extension unit. Both the theory and practical work for the Associated Board exams should help pupils doing Higher, particularly with listening and inventing (composition).
Confidence has increased with ability. The 11 fast-tracked S3 pupils are already in the senior school band and a few are in the North Ayrshire senior band.
The drama department is equally enthusiastic about the new timetable.
Teacher Janice White believes the early start means pupils pick up more skills because they have more time to write, act, direct and produce their own work and, in S3, to take part (as actors) in the devised drama unit which senior pupils undertake.
Despite the department's Standard grade success rate for S3 pupils last year, it has now opted to put all pupils into Access 3 in S2, Intermediate 1 in S3 and Intermediate 2 in S4.
"I find they are more motivated with this and, coupled with the early start, they are maturing more quickly," says Mrs White.
"They have responsibility for their own pace of learning because they have to write and direct and make all the decisions that go with this. They are more focused."
The early start and the fast-tracking have involved teachers in extra planning work but delivering the course is "extremely enjoyable", in spite of having to keep assessments up to date.
"The pupil motivation rubs off on the staff," says Mrs White, "and it's great to see the pupils' life skills developing. I would say the new system brings on their maturity." She gives the example of S3 pupils delivering their own anti-bullying drama not only to peers, parents and teachers in the school but last term also to a large audience drawn from teachers and education department members from across North Ayrshire.
David McSorley, the head of chemistry, is pleased with his S3 Intermediate 1 results and hopes they will have a knock-on effect of attracting greater numbers to studying the subject and of increasing attainment.
"There were concerns about whether the pupils were mature enough to make choices and undertake courses this early but they've not been borne out," he says. "I'm presenting 50 S3s for Intermediate 1 this session, so numbers are increasing.
"I've a feeling the pupils are better motivated because they're working at what they've chosen to do earlier and this will impact positively on behaviour."
Other departments at Garnock Academy are also pleased with the early start to exam courses, though they have not so far chosen to present pupils for exams in S3.
George McGrattan, the principal of computing, says: "Under the old system pupils were often disaffected in the second half of S2 because they'd already made up their minds what subjects they wanted to do and were marking time with those they didn't want to do. Positive behaviour has increased in my experience."
Some teachers are opposed to the early start programmes, believing they focus more on exams and league tables than on education, but Mr McGrattan argues that an early start actually allows teachers to be less exam oriented, certainly in departments where pupils are not being presented for exams early.
"You have more time and are under less pressure," he says. "You can make more of learning opportunities and allow pupils to enjoy learning more.
"Because you don't have to teach to the exam so much, you can explore more, so you are increasing learning opportunities, giving pupils a wider knowledge and encouraging them to be more creative."
Overall, in terms of ethos and discipline, the benefits seem to be felt across the whole S2 year group. Attendance has increased, says depute headteacher Charles Waddell (who draws up the technically difficult timetable change in mid-session). Comparing pre-and post-Christmas figures in 2002-03, S2 attendance went up by 1.4 per cent in January and last session by 1.3 per cent, which he regards as a significant percentage over a year group of 225.
And parents appreciate the change. They were widely consulted about the early start initiative and have been hugely supportive, as has the local authority, says Mr McNaught.
"No parent has said I don't like the early start and, unprompted, a lot have come forward to say they positively like it."