Living up to the school motto
To say that Braes High, in the Reddingmuirhead area of Falkirk, has been turned around would be no overstatement. One suspects the headteacher, Helen McCulloch, played no small part in that.
The school, which has a roll of 1,100 pupils and serves eight mining villages, had a "terrible reputation". Academic achievement was middling to poor, the uniform was worn by a minority and litter and vandalism were problems. People seemed to feel little pride in being part of Braes High, which opened in August 2000, and it lacked any sense of identity.
Now, it seems to be putting its new motto of "Build respect and earn success" into practice. Most pupils wear the uniform, a shared ethos has been built and exam results have improved markedly.
Braes High was selected as one of the Scottish Executive's 20 Schools of Ambition in 2005. Its goal was to create a successful school and a positive ethos where all pupils could achieve their potential, take pride in their school and know their achievements would be recognised.
Each School of Ambition committed itself to making radical improvements for its children and the Executive hoped they would set new national standards.
In return, they were given pound;100,000 a year for three years.
In the first year, Mrs McCulloch and her management team used the funding to invest in technology, which is evident all round the school. A learning centre has replaced the old library. The senior common room has been completely renovated, with a sound system and Onelan multimedia technology projecting images on the wall. The newly launched school radio station, Braes Beat, broadcasts during breaks. Dartfish technology in the PE department enables teachers to video and analyse pupils' performances and style.
"The label School of Ambition has removed contraints," says Mrs McCulloch.
"It has allowed us to make a huge change in a short space of time.
"You've got to have a clear picture of what you want to do and why you want to do it."
In the learning centre, an S2 English class is discussing war. Beside a large interactive whiteboard are tables and brightly coloured chairs; another area has computers; books are shelved at either end of the room and there is a soft seating area where pupils can read in comfort.
A design agency was brought in to improve the layout and friendliness of the former library and social spaces. The pupils were consulted too and the results reflect their input.
In the new senior common room, full of S5 and S6 pupils on their morning break, a video projected on to the wall shows the school's gymnasts performing at one of its rewards ceremonies; the newsreel announces that S5 pupil Nick Dickson has been selected for the NASA Space School next summer; and Thin Lizzy is playing on Braes Beat.
Pupils are only allowed access to the senior common room if they are wearing school uniform.
"There's been an unbelievable improvement in uniform," says Mrs McCulloch.
"I think it's down to building ethos. We're saying do you want to be part of it or not?"
The pupils are unequivocal, saying the school is "so much better" than before.
"People respect it because it's ours," says S6 pupil Claire McCracken of the common room. "Almost everyone wears the uniform now because they want in."
In a small IT room, an S4 team is editing a video about litter they have made for a school assembly. They interviewed local people and recorded their comments. With help from a professional film-maker, they have learned how to film, edit and record sound.
Meanwhile, an S4 Standard grade PE class is in the school swimming pool.
The teacher records one girl doing the front crawl, projecting the image on to the white tiled wall. She can pause, rewind and replay the pupil's strokes slowly, so that the girl can learn how to improve her technique.
Next year, the school will use its funding to develop technology in the classroom to improve learning. The following year, it hopes to work technology options into the syllabus, so pupils can choose certificated media and information technology courses, such as sound recording.
"Alongside that, we will be working on building links with the community and developing enterprise," says Mrs McCulloch. "For example, we could record special occasions for our primaries as an enterprise project."
This year the number of pupils gaining five or more Standard grades at all levels rose from 62 per cent to 77 per cent, Higher exam passes were up from 68 per cent to 75 per cent, and the number of pupils presented for Advanced Highers is up from 14 to 41.
"The change has been amazing," says Mrs McCulloch. "The school had a terrible reputation. The kids were really negative about it.
"We've had lots of support and positive comments from parents.
"I've been overwhelmed by the support from staff, who see the school changing and see the difference it's making to the pupils."