Last month East Renfrewshire became the first authority to be awarded top grades in all 11 educational benchmarks by HM inspectors. So how did they do it? Douglas Blane visited the director and a couple of schools to find the answer
The success of Scotland's top education service is built on a firm foundation of hard facts and solid information, says East Renfrewshire director of education, John Wilson.
"There are sometimes too many opinions in education. An academic on TV recently had an opinion about East Renfrewshire. He said education should be about the whole child and not just attainment."
(Professor Brian Boyd in Reporting Scotland. See last week's TESS).
The affable director, whose leadership HM Inspectorate of Education judged "outstanding", allows an edge to enter his voice. "I have invited this professor to accompany me to any school in East Renfrewshire and point out where we are not developing the whole child."
The notion that East Renfrewshire is all about attainment, narrowly defined in exam terms, is, says Mr Wilson, one of several misconceptions about an authority judged "very good" in each of the 11 quality indicators assessed by the inspectors.
"We are not just an exam factory. But we don't make any apologies for driving high attainment. We believe a high attaining school is an inclusive school.
"Look at the range of awards our schools are achieving in arts, music, culture, sports, enterprise, citizenship, dyslexia friendliness, health promotion. We're proud of the high attainment of our pupils, but it is not the whole story."
Another misconception Mr Wilson and his colleagues are keen to dispel is that East Renfrewshire is a collection of leafy suburbs with affluent families whose kids are easy to teach and eager to learn.
"Some parts of it are like that," says Mr Wilson. "Others are pretty deprived."
Fiona Morrison, the head of the education management information service (EMIS), which provides the data the director believes underpins the authority's success, amplifies the point.
"We have many youngsters from socially deprived backgrounds and with additional needs who have to be challenged and supported," she says.
"Every one of these has the right to achieve their full potential. Making sure they do is the best way to effect high standards of attainment at school and authority level."
Mr Wilson offers an illustration. "When East Renfrewshire took over responsibility for education here, not one child in the whole Barrhead area could achieve five Highers. There were two reasons: their expectations were low and the structures in schools did not allow them to sit five Highers."
Three years later, 11 per cent of Barrhead pupils - compared to the 9 per cent national average - are gaining five Highers, he says.
"That means this town was way below the national average simply because we were not allowing pupils to succeed. When we realised that, we changed the structures to make sure that they could.
"The best way to tackle social disadvantage is to provide young people with the same or better opportunities - through additional support - than those in more affluent areas."
Confirmation that this is happening in East Renfrewshire comes from the inspectors, who noted: "Very significantly, schools in areas of social deprivation were narrowing aspects of the attainment gap with schools in more affluent areas."
A number of approaches and initiatives have contributed to this narrowing, while attainment is being driven up across the authority, says the director.
Among the most important are standardised tests, which have been dropped by other authorities in accordance with the Scottish Executive's new policy.
"These allow us to identify barriers to learning at the earliest opportunity," says Ms Morrison.
"They are diagnostic tools in reading and maths, developed by Edinburgh University and East Renfrewshire. All our schools administer them at P3, P5 P7 and S2. This enables the schools to identify the strengths and difficulties of every child while there is still time to tackle them, instead of waiting for exam results when they are 16, by which time it may be too late."
Another crucial area, says Mr Wilson, is communications with schools, parents and pupils.
"I meet with pupils regularly, two from each school's pupil council four times a year. We listen and we get a lot of ideas from them.
"They told us, for instance, that we weren't working well enough with the environment department to promote recycling. So now we are committed to doing so.
"The level of debate at these forums is very high."
Getting parents on board and providing opportunities for children to learn at home is also essential, says Mr Wilson. "So the EMIS unit has developed a curriculum support service to let children access information and learning materials at home or at school through our intranet."
Other initiatives include pledge cards to teachers and senior pupils, with the authority's commitments updated each year, study weekends at an outdoor centre for pupils from socially disadvantaged areas, and an authority-wide move towards National Qualifications and away from Standard grades.
"Very few of those are taken in our schools now," says Mr Wilson. "It gives us a much smoother gradient from S2, when we can start pupils on National Qualifications, and it removes the big jump from Standard grade to Higher."
In the critical area of communications between authority and schools, the inspectors note that East Renfrewshire headteachers report a close involvement with policy development, as well as high levels of satisfaction with quality improvement officers and the EMIS data.
In the education department and the schools, the inspectors found a "real commitment to implementing the mission statement that no school or pupil should be left behind".
Asked to encapsulate what East Renfrewshire education is all about, Mr Wilson thinks for a moment before replying. "We challenge our schools vigorously and we give them tremendous support. There is a culture of achievement in the broadest sense and of continuous improvement.
"Our mission of inclusion, achievement and progress for all underpins everything we do. I really believe in it."
At St Luke's High, on the south side of Barrhead, the need for this commitment is demonstrated when headteacher John Fitzpatrick pulls the blinds in his office to reveal a varied vista over houses, tenements and factories to the Dumbarton hills and the Grampians.
"Newton Mearns is behind us, and there is a residential development just across the road. Down there we see the whole town of Barrhead. Those rows of council houses just beyond the school playing fields are empty and boarded up. It is a very mixed catchment area."
The principal teacher of social subjects, Claire Raeburn, sees this as a benefit not a challenge. "You might have a kid in your class whose dad is a pilot, sitting next to one whose family has never worked. But we don't create a feeling of us and them in this school.
"We organise an awful lot of extra-curricular activities.
"Most of the pupils are really good kids, and the view through the windows certainly helps our geography lessons."
Mr Fitzpatrick's mathematical background partly accounts for his sharing the directorate's belief in the value of facts and figures.
"The quality of data EMIS provides is exceptional," he says. "They highlight strengths and weaknesses, spot patterns at school and authority level and present them in a way that gets key messages across to individual schools.
"At St Luke's High, we also have our own systems, which complement EMIS and take the data to a further level of scrutiny, allowing us to track individual pupils and guide them in important areas like subject choice."
At the heart of what happens when a school improves is what goes on in the classroom, says Mr Fitzpatrick, who, since his appointment five years ago, has overseen a sustained and significant increase in attainment. "Our teachers visit the classes of their colleagues across departments and agree, discuss and examine methods."
But the headteacher also shares the directorate's view that attainment is just one aspect of the East Renfrewshire story.
"I recognise and celebrate improved attainment, but it would be a pity if the spotlight fell on that alone," he says. "Attainment is about young people's life chances. It is fundamental but you don't get attainment in isolation.
"You need to get the learning and teaching right, the curriculum, the resources. You need good leadership, quality control, a good school ethos.
I am very proud of the ethos in this school. If you have all these things in place, then you will get raised attainment."
On a frosty morning outside Thornliebank Primary, one of the most improved schools in the country, the pupils are having fun on a slippery playground beside a main thoroughfare into Glasgow from the south.
Inside her office, Stephanie MacIntyre, the headteacher, or, as she prefers, management team leader, is seated at a small table decorated with fresh lilies and a small dish of mints.
Two and a half years ago an inspection pronounced the school leadership unsatisfactory and pupils' learning (as well as seven other quality indicators) only fair. After that, Mrs MacIntyre was appointed and, two years on, she has effected a remarkable transformation in the school she describes as "her passion".
"I have a roll of 340 plus 80 in the nursery, and 70 per cent are from areas of severe deprivation.
"People have the wrong idea about these kids. Our children are lovely and the parents respect what the teachers can do.
"Having been at Thornliebank for 18 years, I taught the mums of the children we now have, which gives you a very special relationship with them."
At the time of her appointment, says Mrs MacIntyre, East Renfrewshire's director of education came out to the school and asked what support the education department could provide.
"I was working with a sadly depleted management team, so the first thing I needed was staff. They brought a headteacher out of retirement to be my acting depute for a time. She was wonderful. I then appointed my own senior management team."
Pace of learning provides a good example of challenge from the authority, says Mrs MacIntyre.
"When I took over, most children were not achieving 5-14 level A until Primary 3. Many were very capable of doing so earlier. The authority challenged us to step up our programmes of work. We did so. We now track not just the level each child achieves, but the time since they last sat a national assessment."
In terms of support, the authority acts and reacts very effectively to improve learning and teaching, says Mrs MacIntyre, "whether it's providing interactive whiteboards, an excellent system of leased PCs, or partitioning large spaces into separate teaching areas to reduce noise and distraction.
"If we make a justification, in my experience, they might ask us to wait until the next financial year but they don't say 'No'."
A revelation in her teaching career spanning 27 years came six years ago, says Mrs MacIntyre, when Thornliebank became the first community school in East Renfrewshire, allowing teachers to work very closely with other child and family professionals.
"We had a social worker, two family learning co-ordinators, a health co-ordinator, an integration manager. After the successful pilot, I was very keen to keep these people at the school."
Having always worked in areas of deprivation, Mrs MacIntyre is convinced that education in isolation cannot work. "Many children need more than education. They need nurturing and support," she says. "The way to bridge the gap is to look at the needs of the child in the family.
"We are the only constant in many children's lives. We have to be the person they know and trust, who reads to them, looks after them, even feeds and clothes them sometimes.
"I have a very special staff. They do all this for our children."