The fight against closure

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Garthamlock Secondary in Glasgow is at risk of closure for the second time in two years. Its head, Bill Campbell, talks to Janet Boyle

The threat of closure and falling school rolls shakes the morale of staff and parents, not least in a city like Glasgow where, for the second time in two years, schools are watching with trepidation as the education authority decides which ones to target. When numbers fall, hordes of parents opt to send their children to schools with a more certain future, leaving others struggling against the odds to raise their numbers.

Garthamlock Secondary in Glasgow's east end is under threat yet again. In October 1995 the school suffered a major fire, gutting its assembly hall and music and art departments. Two months later a consultation document was published, proposing to close it. Rolls started to tumble, and by April 1996 only 323 pupils remained. The following month, the education authority abandoned plans to close the school, announcing instead that it would move one of the local primaries into the building. The move was scheduled for August 1999.

Bill Campbell took over as headteacher in January 1997 and is only six months into rebuilding his school. Plans were to restore the music and art rooms this year and the "burnt out shell" of the assembly hall next year. Although Garthamlock has so far survived the threat of closure, the Damoclean sword which has been hanging over it wiped more than 100 pupils from its roll last year, including 30 from one year group in a period of a few weeks. There was also an exodus of staff. The position worsened when two feeder primaries closed.

When Bill Campbell moved in, a freeze on posts was lifted and he found himself in the "lucky postion of being able to appoint 60 per cent of the staff, including my own deputy". All of them came "optimistically", he says, to restore the school's position in the community.

One of the first things Bill Campbell did was to identify ways of marketing the school to the community.

"We realised that we had to restore the confidence of the teachers, parents and, above all, pupils in our school. That meant raising the profile of the school in the community and creating one which parents wanted.

"We went out to meet prospective families at parents' meetings in local primary schools. If we presented a positive secondary school, they were more likely to choose Garthamlock. It was important that parents recognised our commitment to education."

A degree of success was achieved in increasing the numbers from feeder primaries. The number of new entrants from one primary increased from two to 13 in a year.

Discipline problems were met head-on by introducing incentives for good behaviour. Garthamlock uses a "Keep On Colour" scheme, which is aiming to reward motivated pupils with trips to Alton Towers in Staffordshire.

A time-out room for disruptive pupils, staffed by senior staff, has been introduced. "I would not like my children's education to be affected by disruption in classes, and nor would our parents. It was vital to show them that pupils were here to learn.

"Taking disruptive pupils out allows them to see the consequences of not taking part in class work and helps them overcome the reasons for behaving like this."

Besides persuading parents to choose Garthamlock, the school had to make pupils want to enrol. This was done by inviting P6 classes to participate in a few days' normal timetable, with the same pupils returning for more of the same in P7.

"It was a kind of look-and-see exercise for prospective pupils, which we hope will help them get to know us," says Bill Campbell.

Progress has already been marked in this year's Standard grade results, which saw improvements in all subjects, he says, with more than half of the chemistry and music candidates gaining passes at Credit level.

Bill Campbell's dream has been to achieve the same success as Bruce Malone, headteacher of St Andrew's Secondary, also in Glasgow's east end. They have been planning a meeting to discuss successful options.

Bruce Malone's school was not threatened with closure, but, despite its 1,000-pupil capacity, its roll had sunk five years ago to 600 as more and more youngsters opted for schools outside the Glasgow boundary. There were strong fears of internecine warfare when neighbouring St Gregory's and Cranhill Secondary closed and locals thought the two communities would never get on. There was also, in Bruce Malone's words, a "haemorrhage" of primary pupils choosing to cross the boundary rather than come into the first year at St Andrew's: "At one stage we were losing about 50 pupils from two P7 classes. "

But since 1992 the school roll has now almost doubled to 1,113. Moreover, 70 parents failed to gain places for their children and two are still appealing. Bruce Malone believes his success is based on creating a school to which he would want to send his own son.

"You have to provide education which you would be happy to receive," he says. "It is important to give the community a standard of education they want. None of this would be possible without a highly enthusiastic staff. Parents are pleased that their children have 'too much' homework, and back up praising achievement and punishing bad behaviour."

Their approach appears to be working, if the absence of graffiti around the school is anything to go by. Uniform is also now worn by all pupils.

The school communicates with the parents through many channels, including an eight-page, monthly newsletter and regular addresses by the headteacher and senior staff to parents at the end of Sunday mass - there are eight parishes in the catchment area. Parents are also involved in numerous school clubs, from computing to goldfish.

A common thread in promoting these two schools is the act of getting out into the community and bringing parents in. Perhaps the most innovative move so far has been to have six pupils from St Andrew's - some very successful and others underachieving - to address the parents and explain their own experience.

"One boy was happy to explain that disappointment over his grades had motivated him to work harder," Bruce Malone explains. "It was a very touching moment and an exceptionally mature statement to make. We have every faith that that boy will achieve his potential."

SCE exam results at St Andrew's well exceed expectations for the nature and location of the school: more than 20 per cent of fourth years achieve five or more Standard grade Credits; over 70 per cent get five passes at General level; and 90 per cent are getting five at Levels 1 to 6.

Staff commitment, which extends to even an Easter revision course, is evident. But the most poignant indicator of St Andrew's success is the story of one pupil who left in the fourth year in 1996, spent a year as a trainee chef and asked to return to the school. "He approached me at the school gates and asked to come back for his sixth year," says Bruce Malone. "We were delighted to have him back."


* Try to establish contact with parents of feeder primaries at parents' night. Explain that your school is approachable, enthusiastic and ambitious for its pupils;

* Make known through newsletters a clear policy on handling disruptive pupils. Use simple, easy language, without jargon;

* Emphasise your school's homework policy. It is a daily link between school and home, and one on which many parents judge schools;

* Promote admirable work of pupils through the local press, eg external awards or prizes, charitable work in the community, attractive artwork in school, visits to science events and links with further and higher education;

* Involve parents in school clubs - parents of feeder primaries, too. People are flattered to be asked. Be imaginative: oil rig worker - science club; dog breeder - animal interest club; taxi driver - streetwise safety club;

* Have the school represented at local functions by a staff member andor pupils in uniform (police station open days, hospital fetes, etc).

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