A Scottish school is determined that its pupils will have a chance to be players on the world stage. Ian Nicol reports. Lockerbie Academy in Dumfriesshire stands within sight of the A74 running over the border to England. It also lies about 30,000 feet under the flight path between the UK and the USA. When, in Christmas 1989, a bomb blast aboard a Jumbo jet sent wreckage crashing down on the town, the school became the operational centre for the emergency services. The rector's office was taken over by the US Embassy, and served as a point of focus for the world.
Today it has developed a remarkable international awareness. The school serves a secure and comfortable catchment area of 18 associate primary schools, including village communities and the townships of Lockerbie and Loch Maben. Most of its pupils will find work or progress to further training or education. The stresses of urban deprivation are notably absent. It is a school for 850 pupils and about 40 adults learners, with a happy and secure atmosphere.
Rector Graham Herbert identifies the need to compete in an international market as a major challenge for the school. Secondary 6 pupils are already looking towards Europe and the wider world. All students in the upper school have the opportunity of an exchange abroad, and the school takes part in the International Baccalaureate programme, which provides links with schools across Europe and Scandinavia. Senior pupils receive funding to take part in the IB programme at school centres abroad, with English as the language of instruction.
S6 student Morven Kobiela looks forward to this year's pupil conference in Norway, and refers to links with schools in Poland, Slovakia and Finland. Classmate Graeme Hawkins values the IB initiative because it offers "a chance to see a change of culture and differences in curriculum and lifestyles". And Kenneth Wilson, S6, points out that "in Lockerbie, we don't have much chance to link with big business in our education. Instead, we make links with other countries".
But there has been a significant culture change in the community, according to assistant head Barbara Lewis, who has been at the school for 17 years. "The outside world has increasingly impinged on Lockerbie," she says. "You can't pretend it's not there. Even the local dialect - exposed to media influences - is almost gone."
Teachers at the school have benefited from staff development aspects of the IB programme, with 10 members of staff attending courses in Bratislavia, Prague and Lisbon. Assistant head Susan Rice says: "IB funding has given teachers opportunities to go to international conferences and meet professionals at their own level. The conferences are superb. Staff come back stimulated and ready to go." Some parents have expressed reservations about special European funding for an elite group at a time of cut-backs in school budgets. But one father, Hugh Young, points out: "The global village is getting smaller. It's important we have an understanding of other countries."
School board member Nan Rew is enthusiastic about the school being part of the European scene. "Pupils learn to appreciate what they have," she says. "It opens their eyes. Experience first-hand is more valuable than books."
The IB initiative at Lockerbie has been carefully fostered over time. Its roots lie in the cultivation of a European awareness during the early years of the school, and in a general climate of looking outwards and upwards.
The European dimension has also helped to promote rigour in the school, according to Derek Brockett, expressive arts coordinator. He says: "When our seniors see the IB exchange pupils heading for the library as soon as they arrive, they sit up and take notice." It has also encouraged the school to develop an outward-looking curriculum. "Scotland places too little emphasis on added value in schools. People probably don't know how to measure it," he says.
Mr Brockett says 90-strong groups of pupils travel to London's theatreland, the British Museum and other venues. He talks of an exchange with a school in St Petersburg in Russia, and being asked by the Russian pupils: "Could you come in early tomorrow and squeeze in another lesson?" He says: "The IB ideal met some resistance at first. But the way ahead for schools is through full immersion in the programme, although we have to proceed slowly and carefully. "
Depute rector Gordon Ferrie says the school's international outlook reinforces cooperation, leadership and academic rigour. He describes elements of the IB programme as complementary to sixth-year studies courses, particularly in physics and maths, where the school has nine pupils following overlapping programmes.
The school has recently been granted an Investors in People award for its comprehensive programme of staff development. The award was achieved with the support of a consultant from the local business world. Rector Graham Herbert insists: "The award merely endorses our existing arrangements for staff development. No great extra effort was involved."
His modesty may conceal the fact that institutional change, even with a consensus on vision, mission and values, does not usually come easy. Jim Rae, principal teacher of biology, points out the difficulty of sustaining links once forged. He admits his own motivation to speak French came when he went to France as a youngster and wanted to chat up French girls. He found the experience rewarding but says: "Making foreign connections and exchanges has to be persevered at. It's sometimes difficult to make and maintain contact. "
Modern languages principal teacher Sandra Elliot justifies the hard work put into fundraising and organising her successful and long-established languages exchanges by saying: "If Lockerbie is not to be insular, such effort has to be encouraged." The proportion of pupils taking a modern language through to the end of S4 stands at about 80 per cent.
Giving pupils from rural communities the vision and skills to compete with their international peers for leadership in Europe after the millennium is not an easy task. Rory Laidlaw, chair of the school board, says: "Scotland often seems to get forgotten."
Giving our young people the chance to take a leading role in the European workplace would be the greatest equal opportunity of all. Lockerbie Academy is doing its best.
Next week: Castlebrae Community High School, Edinburgh