Faith has been their guidance

12th October 2007 at 01:00
If Alison Speirs had known how difficult opening a school was, she would 'never have done it'

Alison Speirs is adamant that the aims in her school's prospectus were written long before A Curriculum for Excellence existed, but it would be an unobservant commentator who failed to spot the similarities between that document's aspirations and those of Cedars School of Excellence in Greenock.

Encouragement of potential, respect for others, and a partnership to promote excellence form significant parts of this small school's clear Christian ethos, and a recognition of success in achieving those aims was equally apparent in an outstanding HMIE report of 2005.

But while small is beautiful for this academic community, the aim is to grow the pupil roll (from 70) to 90 by this year, and 120 in subsequent years. Not that Mrs Speirs is touting for business: "We're full, and have been since the day we opened in 1999, four months after we took the decision to go for it."

Going for it was the culmination of a long period of thought, planning, and even prayer perhaps especially prayer that had started as a vision to provide an experience that would reflect the origins of Scottish education in offering a fully rounded learning experience underpinned by religious faith.

"It's how Scottish education began," Mrs Speirs explains, "but as happens worldwide once the state takes a responsibility to provide such education, the faith element is diminished, or removed altogether, at least in the 'non denominational' sector."

Cedars is not, however, a faith school, at least not in the current parlance: "Our children come from all backgrounds, from Roman Catholic families, from Protestant, and from no faith whatsoever. And we don't 'thrust' faith upon the students. But parents of potential pupils are made aware that the school is founded on Christian principles and the RE curric- ulum focuses on Christianity."

Christian philanthropy played an important part in the school's opening, principally emanating from the members of Struthers Memorial, a group of evangelical churches based mainly across Scotland's central belt. Once Ms Speirs along with the late Mary Black, a co-founder of Cedars explained their vision to the congregations, offerings were requested, and duly given. One donation of pound;20,000 made up virtually half of their start-up costs, and the rest soon followed.

When the time came in 2001 to move to their new location (a former gentleman's club), the purchase and fitting-out costs amounted to nearly pound;1 million, again provided by free-will offerings and church resources. And although there is an insistence that the school's fee income pays for its running costs, there is an annual offering whereby Struthers Memorial members and other supporters contribute to the school funds. It typically draws in around pound;10,000 slightly more than the average collection plate in most churches these days.

Other monies are given to the school. Some goes towards a sponsorship scheme helping with fee costs for those needing assistance (although 40 per cent lower than the sector average, such fees are still a large commitment for many parents). Some goes towards enhancing procurement in all areas, whether it be the supply of technology, or books, or the myriad learning aids that occupy the bright and attractively decorated classrooms at Cedars.

In the beginning, the school operated from P1 to S2, but expansion and inspectorate approval have combined to introduce S3, which took Intermediate 2 exams this year in preparation for the commencement of two-year Higher courses in August. The teaching staff, whose mornings begin with a prayer meeting, numbered two full-time teachers in 1999, but has grown to nine, supplemented by volunteers from the church and the wider community, including occasional students from nearby James Watt College.

Ms Speirs freely admits that starting Cedars "has been phenomenally hard work: if I'd known how difficult it was going to be, I'd never have done it".

She pays fulsome tribute to her staff and board, but as well as being headteacher, she confesses to being director of education, head of human resources, and chief janitor, among other things. In her "spare time", she has a preaching and pastoral role as minister for Struthers Church in Glasgow, which involves a weekend of three services, plus much youth work, and further commitment on weekday evenings.

And although she clearly wishes to share the joys of her faith with those people, she will not, she repeats, "force" faith upon them: "Even if pupils don't leave Cedars with a Christian faith, I hope they can look back and say: 'I've had a happy start to my life'."

It's what curricular excellence is all about.

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