Meet the rock of 'Alcatraz'

11th January 2008 at 00:00
When inspectors visited Lochaber High in Fort William two years ago, they found bullying and violence rife and staff demoralised. In December last year, they returned to find the school transformed. Emma Seith meets the headteacher who turned the school around and is set to lead it through a pound;12 million refurbishment.

Rory McArthur and Geum Chrystal braced themselves for a shock when they moved to Lochaber High. Coming from small rural primaries with barely 25 pupils, they knew the move to a secondary with more than 900 youngsters would require some adjusting. But Lochaber turned out to be more intimidating than they had imagined.

"As a little first year it was frightening," says Rory, who is now in S6. At least once a week there was a fight, and neither Rory nor Geum felt safe in school.

The demerit system for tackling discipline problems was ineffective, they say. Pupils scored points for bad behaviour and after a certain number were accrued, there would be a letter home to parents or a detention. "The focus was on the negative," says Rory. "People were in competition with each other to see who could get the most points. If you did well you would be looked down on and people would gang up - it was cool to be dumb."

Geum, also in S6, adds: "The atmosphere was rubbish. It was as if you couldn't achieve anything. It was embarrassing to be recognised for doing well."

The pair talk about a "lack of unity" among the staff and describe the anarchy that reigned outside the school at the end of every day as pupils piled onto buses and teachers took cover indoors, waiting for the masses to depart before making their own escape.

When Lochaber was inspected in January 2006, HMIE reported that S1-2 children were scared to come to school, and many felt it was not good at dealing with bullying and did not treat all pupils fairly.

Parents believed the school did not deal effectively with bad behaviour and said it had a poor reputation in the community. They felt it was poorly led - a sentiment echoed by staff who told inspectors they had no confidence in the senior management team.

In December last year, the inspectors revisited Lochaber and found it transformed. Under the leadership of a new acting head, good or very good progress had been made towards meeting five of the seven main points on which they had demanded action.

Progress was less rapid when it came to ensuring greater consistency and rigour in approaches to improving its work, but it was found to be adequate. The one enduring weakness was the building and facilities.

In stark contrast to the 2006 report, the senior management team was praised. The inspectors found they "work well as a team" and "have a positive impact on the school". They noted the "morale of staff and pupils had improved".

The acting head, Jim Sutherland, who arrived at the school in May 2006 from Kinlochleven High, was found to have "improved the leadership of the school significantly" and "to have the capacity to improve the school further". Now, having been appointed to the post just before Christmas, he is ready to take up the challenge.

But things got worse before they got better. Morale, identified by inspectors as low, plummeted after the publication of the 2006 report, according to staff and pupils. And the teachers who had been bolstering up the school threw in the towel.

In April 2006 - the day of the public services workers' strike when janitors were out on industrial action - pupils rioted and the school hit the front pages of local newspapers. The Lochaber News declared that pupils came to school armed with "paint, eggs and flour" ready to wreak havoc, and that is exactly what they did, say Geum and Rory. "It was the worst day I've witnessed in the school," Rory recalls. "Bins were tipped over and there was litter all over the corridors. Someone burst the pipes in the boys' toilets. Teachers you had never seen angry before were incensed."

Moira Tregaskis, a GP in Fort William, says the situation "was a culminating disaster".

"The rot started about seven years ago but then things picked up for a while," says Dr Tregaskis, who is head of the parent council and two of her four sons still attend the school. "Then it all slipped away again."

Before Mr Sutherland arrived, Dr Tregaskis was on the verge of removing the elder son and sending him to private school. Both boys, she says, had been subjected to bullying and were unhappy: "It was out of control. I described it one day as being anarchic. The children were not safe at school. There was a lot of violence, a lot of bullying. There was damage to the school done by pupils.

"The teachers could not do anything because there was no structure or leadership. It was not a nice place to be educated in. It was near to being dangerous and certainly was not healthy."

Discussing the problems with the senior management would have been useless, adds Dr Tregaskis. "I felt powerless. I did not feel there was any point coming to the school. It wasn't going to change - things had got beyond that."

Now the boys "enjoy coming to school as much as any teenage boys enjoy coming to school", she says, describing Mr Sutherland as a "shining light".

"Transformation is the only word for it. You come into the school and there is a completely different atmosphere. The teachers are visibly happier and it's more positive."

Rory and Geum agree. Rory says: "There has been an unbelievable change. Now pupils are still punished for doing things wrong but they also get noticed and recognised for doing things right."

The key to the turnaround, according to Mr Sutherland, has been creating a more positive climate. "People say, 'that's some challenge you've taken on' but actually, when I arrived, the building blocks of a good staff and friendly, polite pupils were already in place."

The demerit system has been scrapped and good behaviour is flagged up. Come February, Rory and Geum and their peers are due to benefit from the new regime when they go on a trip to London. It is their reward for maintaining their attendance and progress in their final year.

Shortly after Mr Sutherland arrived, he enforced the dress code of black and white. "After the summer, I let it be known that it was expected that the dress code be adhered to. It was explained that it was a visible sign pupils were ready for and signed up to change."

The "horror" of the school buildings, however, remains a thorn in Mr Sutherland's side - the one area HMIE said the school had made weak progress on.

On Lochaber High's website, the picture of the school shows a slither of building, focusing instead on the backdrop: the Nevis range. Anyone who has seen the school - once described as "the Alcatraz of Lochaber High" by former education minister Peter Peacock - will recognise the wisdom of attracting attention away from its ugly, damp-stained facade. The building's problems, however, are not purely aesthetic. The inspectors reported water leaking into many of the blocks, classrooms in need of refurbishment and broken floor tiles a safety hazard. Much of the building "went up without much thought", explains Mr Sutherland.

Lochaber High was built in the 1960s before the population of Fort William boomed with the arrival of the Scottish paper and pulp mill. Over the course of the Seventies several extensions were added and in 1978, the school roll peaked at 1,600 pupils.

Depute head Isobel MacKenzie was a pupil at the school at the time. She remembers huts, which have since been knocked down, were built in the grounds to house the additional pupils. But when the mill and the jobs it provided went, so did the people.

Today, the school has expanded into the space, says Mr Sutherland. But come April, Highland Council will start to "demolish, renovate and re-build" Lochaber in a pound;12 million refurbishment that is intended to make it "fit for the 21st century".

Positive points such as the school's spacious classrooms will be retained, and the geography block will continue to benefit from uninterrupted views of the Nevis range: "Where else in Scotland do you have geography rooms with all the answers?" asks Mrs MacKenzie.

But it will also benefit from improved facilities. The building containing the asbestos-filled swimming pool, unused for years, will be knocked down. A new gym hall, school restaurant, entrance hall and library will be built.

The library will have patio doors leading outside "so that, on the four good days of the year, pupils can take a book outside and enjoy the sunshine," says Ann-Marie Masson, the librarian. And the school's dance studio and assembly hall will be refurbished.

The work is scheduled to take four years, during which time staff and pupils will remain on site. It will be "a challenge", Mr Sutherland admits, but worth it. "At the moment our sports facilities are abysmally poor," he says. "So they will be improved. But most importantly, the layout is going to be different.

"The campus, which has been cobbled together over so many years, will be brought together and start to make more sense. Instead of having to stumble through a mass of corridors to get to the hall and social areas, these spaces will be easily accessible when you enter the school.

"Ultimately," he says, "the school is going to get a new centre, a new heart."

Some would argue that Lochaber High already has that.

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