Here shines a guiding light

18th July 2008 at 01:00
Ask brothers Kevin and Barry Colquhoun if they miss school, and they chorus "aye", because they now appreciate how much support they received when they were there

Ask brothers Kevin and Barry Colquhoun if they miss school, and they chorus "aye", because they now appreciate how much support they received when they were there.

Kevin, 18, who is waiting for an interview for a council apprenticeship, says he wishes he hadn't left in his fifth year; Barry, 16, who plans to do Intermediate 1 maths at college so he can apply for the engineering corps in the Army, says simply: "I just regret leaving."

On the day The TESS visited Johnstone High, they were back at school, however, clutching a bouquet of flowers and a card for the teacher who has made the biggest difference to their lives - Jeanette Potter, principal teacher of guidance, who retires this summer.

Kevin and Barry, despite being ex-pupils, know they can still rely on their former teachers for support. Mrs Potter has arranged for Kevin to be given practice in an aptitude test he will have to sit to become an apprentice, and for Barry to be given revision so he can start a new maths course at college.

It is largely because of the dedication of Mrs Potter, headteacher Alasdair Macdonald, and Paula Mills, network officer within Renfrewshire Council's peripatetic service for looked-after children, that the school has scooped the CBI Schools for All prize in the Scottish Education Awards.

This year, the focus in the category was on schools' work with pupils who are looked after by their local authority - a group who traditionally perform well below average in many areas.

Johnstone High's record in achieving significantly better exam results for its looked-after pupils has been recognised in the past. As far back as 1999, the school was commended by the Scottish Executive and the Prime Minister's office in Downing Street for the exceptionally high attainment of its looked-after children.

Its work cannot only be measured in Standard grade and Higher passes. Staff have focused on encouraging youngsters to achieve in non-examinable areas, from Duke of Edinburgh awards to extra-curricular social support groups like Reachout.

A decision taken 10 years ago by Mr Macdonald, when he took over as head, is said to have been critical in improving the pastoral support for looked-after children. Instead of having them spread across the school's guidance groups, he put them into the one house - the red group - assigned to Mrs Potter. The idea was that they would form more of a family unit.

Mrs Potter says: "Our arrangement has the advantage of one member of staff not only having an overview of the agenda for looked-after children, but of knowing each child as part of her guidance group. Those who live in the units are regarded as a family. This facilitates close links with partner agencies."

Kevin and Barry's younger brother Lee has just joined Johnstone High in S2; two of their older siblings have been through the school, although another four have been educated elsewhere. Having a guidance teacher dedicated to the interests of looked-after children means, however, that she knows the family background. "Growing up in a children's home is hard. The kids have had problems to face in their lives that many of us can't imagine. I just want them to have the best opportunities," says Mrs Potter.

Kevin chips in: "There are all sorts of people living with you and things happening. Trouble can flare from a word, and there will be a fight."

Mrs Potter, through Johnstone's unique guidance arrangements for looked- after children, has been able to build a close relationship with the children's unit managers and residential homes. It means that if trouble has flared overnight, she will get a call warning her that a certain child is likely to be upset when they arrive. It also gives her the opportunity to forewarn their subject teachers, which helps them deal with a potential incident with greater sensitivity.

The national target set by the Scottish Government for looked-after children is that they attain a level 6 (Foundation) Standard grade pass in maths and English. "That's insulting," says Mrs Potter.

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