Just five years ago, sixth year pupils in Holy Rood were diminishing in number like some protected species. Wafting silently in and out of school at irregular times of the day, they were swathed in the gossamer wraps which were the fleeting fashion. Many worked long hours on the tasks set them, but in Asda or Sainsbury, not in school. Their impact on school life was limited.
The transformation of our senior school has been the work of Mike Knox, principal teacher of religious and moral education. More than 20 years of teaching in Holy Rood have given him a keen insight into the psychology of our older pupils and consummate skill in motivating and encouraging them. Although his Jesus sandals are less visible against his dark woolly socks than in the era of protruding toes, the calm and reflective approach to young people which they represent has remained constant. It was Mike's work as form teacher for sixth year which gave us the confidence to ask him to assume responsibility for all senior pupils.
The blueprint for change soon landed on my desk, with resource implications and requisite management support in bold lettering. The proposal was based on the premise that raised expectations of our senior pupils could only be realised if we demonstrated tangibly our commitment to them.
A geographical area would be reserved for fifth and sixth year pupils. Decent furniture would be needed and they should have some say about the layout. While conceding that a lick of paint was in order, I was worried that the colour scheme might reflect the blinding fluorescence of Mike's idiosyncratic collection of shirts.
The resulting sense of belonging to an exclusive area is one of the most catalytic ingredients of our revitalised upper school. The fifth year common room is awkwardly shaped and poorly lit, with one electrical socket, but pupils appreciate it and value the kudos which comes with senior status. They also understand that improvements in their physical conditions bring expectations of greater effort and higher achievement.
A programme of activities for the year offers a weekend excursion, with staff, to Holy Island and an overnight vigil linked to our annual charities appeal during Lent. Standard Life has agreed to provide all senior pupils with two days of training on preparation for work. There will be opportunities to represent the school in television programmes, awards ceremonies and high-profile events throughout the year. Already, seniors have had a prominent role in induction of the first year pupils.
With privileges come responsibilities, and senior pupils are expected to work, behave and dress in an exemplary manner. I have heard no complaints as they brighten the corridors with their gleaming white shirts and purple ties. They regard school uniform as part of the deal, and their sense of community is galvanised by their impressive appearance.
Heightened expectations have not deterred candidates for the upper school, and the staying-on rate has rocketed by comparison with previous years.
All fifth and sixth year pupils are prefects, with no superstars identified as head boy or head girl. Rather, a team approach is encouraged, with senior pupils electing a committee to represent their views.
Some are pastoral prefects, whose responsibilities involve looking after younger pupils. The creation of departmental prefects has allowed special interests in particular subjects to be developed. Teaching staff appreciate the additional help and have struggled in some cases to keep offers of help within realistic proportions.
Form teachers in the senior school have undertaken to track pupils' progress carefully and to keep guidance staff informed of poor attendance or back-sliding. The peppering of Higher Still unit assessments across the year means that work monitoring has to be tight from the outset.
Sixteen and 17-year-olds have to be offered flexibility consistent with their age and proportionate to that enjoyed by their contemporaries in work and further education colleges. Equally, they require the rigour and responsibility which will convey them through demanding examinations to their chosen course or career. The senior school in Holy Rood has been fundamentally revamped, and there is general agreement that Knox was responsible for the reformation.
Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood RC School, Edinburgh