Inverclyde education authority has taken a tough knock for the poor state of its school buildings but its efforts to beat deprivation and raise attainment have been highly praised by inspectors and teachers, writes Douglas Blane
Between the wind-chimes and the wishing well in Ravenscraig Primary's rockery garden stands a Burns-inspired scene by sculptor George Wylie of a mouse fleeing the plough that has wrecked her home. It is a perennial reminder of what can happen to the best laid plans of mice and men and one that Inverclyde education authority hardly needs right now.
The poor condition of many school buildings had been a criticism by HM Inspectors in their 2001 authority inspection, but last year's newly-elected council scrapped the authority's plans for modernising the school estate. So, when the inspectors returned recently to find no improvement, their redoubled censure attracted much attention, eclipsing the high praise they gave the authority in other respects.
Against a tough background of deprivation and falling rolls, the inspectors commended Inverclyde for the quality of its vision and values, its management, leadership and planning. The education authority had created an ethos of achievement, they said, that was paying off in improvements over a wide front, including "academic attainment and achievement in health education, business education, sport and the arts".
The inspectors noted in particular that communications between the authority and its schools were very good and based on trust and strong relationships. It is the first point that Inverclyde's head of support for learning, Angus MacDonald, mentions when giving reasons for the authority's success.
"We build a climate in our schools that lets everyone feel we are working on a common project to raise attainment and achievement and to give young people the best possible life chances," he says. "We are very conscious of the tone we adopt. If you've got mutual respect and support, you can have constructive discussions and even disagreement."
School managers in Inverclyde agree. "There is a good balance between challenge and support here," says Nigel Lawrie, headteacher at Port Glasgow High.
"Twice a session advisers come out, armed with really informative statistical data. These help us look at important issues such as the performance of boys versus girls or the value added between Primary 7 and Secondary 2.
"Because they pull in national data, this lets us know exactly where we are as a school, both in terms of comparator schools and our own development plan. That statistical database is very strong. It's a valuable tool for managing a school."
The authority has introduced a range of initiatives, at Port Glasgow High and elsewhere, aimed at raising pupil attainment.
"Motivation is the key," says Dr Lawrie. "Different youngsters are motivated by different approaches, so you couldn't put your finger on one that is most effective.
"The authority organises seminars on how to do formative assessment well, because that has been shown to raise attainment. We have programmes in science and maths to develop general thinking skills."
Connections with local industry are strong and include initiatives such as mentoring boys, enouraging women into technology and laptop computers for science. An innovative business language course has been developed to appeal to pupils who might not otherwise be interested in modern languages.
"We track individual pupils closely and pick up underachievement," says Dr Lawrie. "When young people don't do as well as they can, it's not through lack of ability but lack of motivation, so all these initiatives that turn them on to learning are vital."
He adds: "I've been a head for 18 years and I haven't seen the levels of support we get in Inverclyde."
At the other end of Greenock, near the IBM factory whose 1951 construction kick-started the local economy after the long decline of the shipyards, stands Ravenscraig Primary.
Headteacher Isabella Lind is a bundle of creative energy. She generally starts work at 7am, she says, so that she can get her paperwork - not a favourite task - out of the way and still have time for lots of teaching and learning. "The kids keep me young," she says.
When she heard that school inspectors were planning a visit she felt some trepidation. "My whole philosophy of teaching was on the line." It is a philosophy that focuses on enthusiasm, imagination and never letting inexperience be a barrier to trying something new.
"There are opportunities for learning everywhere you look, for the children and us teachers. We try to give the children here as rich an experience as possible. There are particularly exciting possibilities in expressive arts and environmental studies and I believe these raise standards across the board."
Her pupils are currently working on a Robert Burns CD-Rom (Highland Mary is buried in Greenock) and have been out learning about local history, listening to people they meet and learning from places they visit.
Around the school, beautiful soprano voices are raised in heart-piercing song as the children practise, singly and in groups, for a local music festival. The pupils regularly give presentations from an early age, says Mrs Lind, so by Primary 7 they have a poise and confidence in public that youngsters do not commonly possess.
"Talking is very important. We open our garden to the public and the children show visitors around and tell them all about the plants. They like to use their scientific names.
"It took me a while to learn them, which they thought was very funny, but I got there in the end. That one is a Corylus avellana 'Contorta' (corkscrew hazel).
"But you see, that's the point. Nobody should be afraid to admit they don't know and you needn't let lack of knowledge stop you.
"Children and teachers should be learning all the time because that's what makes schools exciting and motivating."
Inverclyde quality advisers provided the school with statistical data, performance indicators and methods of self-evaluation, says Mrs Lind, and actually challenged her and her teachers harder than the school inspectors did.
"We had a very young quality adviser for a while and I wasn't sure how that would work. But he admired what we were doing and he showed us, in a very nice way, how to get it all down on paper."
In the end, Ravenscraig Primary and its management received a glowing report from the school inspectors.
Inverclyde Council encourages self-evaluation, says Mr MacDonald. "It's all about being engaged in a common enterprise, keeping a clear vision, communicating it well and involving school staff at all levels.
"Our focus on attainment is clear and the challenge to staff is real, but the support we put in to help them meet that challenge is also active and very varied."