Two boys from St Aloysius College, Glasgow, came joint first in last year's Higher physics exam. Seonag MacKinnon visited the science department to find out why
The headteacher summoned the pupil to his room, handed him a letter and said: "Read this." Dominic Robertson feared the worst. "I read the letter and then read it again, because I couldn't believe what it said." Far from being in trouble, this sixth-year pupil was making school history by coming joint first in Scotland in the 1997 physics Higher. Even more remarkable, sharing the laurels was fellow pupil Andrew Robertson (no relation).
The boys' teacher, Tom Queen, who is head of department at St Aloysius' College, Glasgow, plays down his part in the triumph. When Dominic, who is also school captain, came to thank him for his help, he replied: "If I'd given you the books, Dominic, you'd have managed it yourself.
"When you teach pupils who are that able, you very often get the impression that they know more than you and can do more with it," says Dr Queen. "They simply have the kind of brains that react very well to physics. They are natural physicists. They answer questions and have great insight.
"It has always been pretty obvious, but when they got to the Higher stage they were performing very well indeed. Their homework was all done meticulously. It was almost perfect."
As Scotland's only co-educational private Catholic school, where fees are Pounds 3,500 per year and entrance is via a competitive exam, this Jesuit college undoubtedly draws most of its roll from a very advantaged section of the population. Pupils commute from as far away as Edinburgh, Troon and Stirling. No doubt helped by bad publicity surrounding Glasgow's education authority for the worst exam result tables in Scotland, the roll at St Aloysius has climbed by an astonishing 20 per cent to 1,270 in the past two years. Fr Adrian Porter, the headteacher, suggests that the college's track record in exams cannot be wholly explained by the rarefied catchment. When the school went from being grant-aided to independent in 1971, it established a policy of keeping fees Pounds 1,000 lower than comparable schools. He believes it attracts some families who might not otherwise be able to afford independent education.
High expectations of pupils and copious homework also play a major role. "We work hard on the prevailing culture to make sure there there is no stigma attached to being a boy at 17 and working very hard. New pupils are horrified by the amount of homework and the quality expected, but they very quickly fall into it," says Fr Porter.
A sense of order also contributes to success, he suggests. "We have no discipline problems. Teachers can get on with teaching and pupils can get on with learning." A particular hallmark of the school is an insistence that the youngsters use cartridge pens. Fr Porter believes that it contributes to high standards. "It may seem trivial, but it is not. The pens encourage the youngsters to take care over how they write and present their work. It underpins a high standard in the quality of their work. I know as an examiner that if work is not well set out and I have difficulty making out the writing, it does not make such a good impression.
"Science is very strong in this school," he says. "The courses are devised and delivered with great thought and precision." Both teacher and pupils believe that the setting of the school's 70 Higher physics candidates played a part in their success. Pupils in the top set sparking off each other were all chasing A passes. Dr Queen says four more pupils were almost inseparable from the Robertsons in terms of ability. Andrew believes: "One reason the marks were so high was because we were grouped together and friendly rivalry came in. " Both boys also attribute their success to motivation stemming from definite goals of careers in law and medicine, for which five A passes at Higher are virtually essential to gain a university place.
Dr Queen thinks that the Robertsons in their band ones probably came very close to 100 per cent in the Higher exam, an all the more remarkable feat since physics is widely regarded as a difficult discipline in which to obtain an A pass.
He believes that pupils are advantaged by the separation of physics, chemistry and biology in first and second year, in contrast to the amorphous science class in many schools. "If you have control over your own area of the curriculum, you can advance the pupils further than if they were in the hands of a non-specialist."
He thinks able as well as less able pupils benefit from setting, as the former can progress more quickly and be enriched by extension work and the latter can receive more remedial work. He argues that in a class where all abilities are grouped together, there is a danger that the needs of no ability grouping are accurately met.
"I'm not saying that less able kids can't learn from brighter kids, but overall in my experience pupils make better progress with setting."
Dr Queen, who worked in industry for many years before going into teaching, has after experimenting with different teaching styles come down in favour of a traditional approach rather than pupil-centred learning. He stresses that children do move about and obviously do practical work, but overall it is teacher-centred. "To put it bluntly, with a pupil-centred approach, children can hide and get through several periods without working. The teacher can be pinned to the desk with queues of children waiting to have work checked. It is very time-consuming and stressful. Time is not used efficiently."
The school, which currently sets pupils from the third year, is considering introducing it in first and second year.