Outside the system

8th December 2000 at 00:00
St Mary's Primary in Dunblane opted out of local authority control to fight against a reduction in the school roll and for improved facilities. It has achieved both, becoming what it believes is a model of devolved school management. What's more, its pupils are soaring above the national averages in basic skills. That is why it is fighting for the right to go it alone. Raymond Ross reports

The motto of St Mary's Episcopal Primary school in Dunblane is "Where great oaks from little acorns grow". It's a fitting enough motto for any primary school, but as the only one in Scotland to opt out from local authority control, in October 1995, under the last Government's legislation, St Mary's is also the school from which great controversies grow.

Under the new education Act, passed by the Scottish Parliament and given royal assent this summer, St Mary's is to lose its self-governing status. When the Act is put into effect, control of the school will be handed to Stirling Council. But it is a move which will be opposed in the courts by the school's board of management with the backing of 97 per cent of the parents.

Given that St Mary's has become one of the most famous schools in Scotland, the first thing which strikes visitors on finding it tucked away up on a hill is just what a small school it is. The original building, substantially enlarged and improved since 1995, is 150 years old. The main school consists of three composite classes; the roll is 66 with three full-time teachers, including the teaching head, and four other part-time teachers. A new morning nursery caters for 27 three and four-year-olds.

Pride in the school is palpable: the message imparted to visitors by staff, board members, parents and pupils alike is that "Oor wee school is a great wee school, the best wee school in Scotland".

Outside the school office is a wall of press reports about St Mary's. In the centre is a splash feature showing the Conservative leader William Hague on a visit to the school a few days previously.

Politics, it seems, is inescapable, though people at the school say that there was never any ideological drive behind St Mary's applying for self-governing status and that parents, staff and board members are drawn from across a wide political spectrum.

Then, why the invitation to Mr Hague?

"Well, I suppose it was contentious and I wasn't sure about it at first," says Alastair McCulloch, chair of St Mary's board of management. "But when you don't have friends out there, then any friend is a help. I mean that in the larger political field not as regards the local community, which gives us tremendous support."

Mr McCulloch's statement echoes the sentiments widely felt at the school: that St Mary's is being used as a "political" or "ideological" football, while all they want is to be left alone to get on with running their school the way they see fit.

St Mary's applied for self-governing status, they say, because the then Central Regional Council agreed to refurbish the school but at the cost of reducing its roll to make it a two-teacher school. "That was purely the reason we opted out," says Mr McCulloch.

"We had public meetings and had the full support of the parents in opposing the reduction but Central just would not listen. The only way we could dig ourselves out of the hole was to use this new legislation.

"Now, as time has gone on, we've found self-governing status works. The pupils are achieving more and this is a very successful and happy school."

Improvements to the structure and environment, achieved since 1995, are pointed out by headteacher Cath Prescott. New features include the nursery extension, indoor toilets for the boys, a general purpose room, a first-aid room, libraryresource room, computer suite and a computer (as well as television and video player) in each classroom, a school office, a staff room, a lift for disabled access and a video entry security system.

Parent Carola Campbell describes the old school as "antiquated, cramped and decayed with wiring that was a fire hazard" and argues that only self-governing status could have brought about the improvements.

"It's a successful opt-out school that is cost-efficient because we control where and how the money is spent; and it has a happy atmosphere which it will lose if it goes back to local authority control. I'm totally opposed to that," she says.

Fellow parent Sue McGowan adds: "My oldest two were here when the school was opting out. It has gone from a good school to a better school. The school has more control over what it does. It's more flexible and we get better value for money. We could also spend more and spend more effectively on the refurbishment because the money was controlled locally."

The school used local architects and builders as a matter of principle and sometimes work carried out by local tradesmen is volunteered at no cost.

Mrs Prescott says self-governing status has helped the ethos of the school, too. "It's all about ownership. The parents and the children literally do have ownership. This all helps with motivation, achievement and involvement," she says.

"We've stressed to parents that, if we go back to local authority control, we do not envisage any change to what actually happens in the classroom, but they are fighting to stay self-governing and they see this very much as fighting for the ethos of the school," she says.

Drawing contrasts with Stirling Council and national figures (both published by the Scottish Executive) for achievements in reading, writing and mathematics, Mrs Prescott argues that P7 pupils at St Mary's (average age 12 years) are outstripping S2 pupils (average age 14 years) in levels of attainment.

St Mary's P7 has, she says, an average reading score of 80 compared to an S2 average for Stirling Council schools of 59 and a national S2 average of 53. For P7 writing, a similar St Mary's score of 80 compares with a Stirling S2 average of 52 and a national S2 score of 44. In maths, the St Mary's P7 score is 70, compared to S2 scores of 55 (Stirling) and 47 (national).

St Mary's pupils are stretched more, stretched to their maximum, according to Lawrie Orr, a parent and a member of the board of management.

"Children of greater ability are progressed at their own rate," explains Mrs Prescott. "When our pupils arrive at Dunblane High School they have to tread water for a year, waiting for the other pupils to catch up. And it's not as if we have a selective catchment area. We have presently 21 pupils with special educational needs on staged intervention."

Parent association member Alison Wallace says: "My daughter loves it so much here that she even wants to come to school at the weekends. Her pals at other primaries are not as motivated and are not doing as well. So, if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it."

Mr Orr describes St Mary's self-governing status within the state sector as "100 per cent devolved school management", and the board's chairman argues that St Mary's should be seen as a model rather than abolished.

"Stirling is offering us quality assurance. We don't need it. We have our own quality assurance and quality achievement," says Mr McCulloch. "They say we'll be better off, but they don't say why. Our academic results and our cost effectiveness are practically second to none.

"Maybe people should be looking here for the big idea. Personally, I feel St Mary's is worth the visit of a minister to see what we're actually doing. We are one of the highest achieving primaries in Scotland.

"Is it just about us or is there a wider lesson to be learned here?" For parent Brigitte Beck-Woerner, the success of St Mary's goes beyond measurable levels of achievement. "Education will have to move away from purely performance indicator goals," she says. "At St Mary's the whole child is addressed and in terms of social inclusiveness we are ahead of most. Here social inclusion begins from the bottom up.

"My children came here because they wanted to come here and here the teachers take on your concerns, concerns that in my experience were previously brushed off by the local authority, especially with regards to special educational needs. There's a real inclusive atmosphere here.

"It's not political for me. It's about the education of the children. That's all we want," she says.

Mr McCulloch believes the school's political battle to remain self-governing has already been lost but is not giving up. "We will challenge the Scottish Executive through the European Convention on Human Rights that we are being discriminated against without good reason.

"The sooner Mr (Jack) McConnell (the Education Minister) signs the ministerial order to put it into effect, then the sooner we can go to court, to a Scottish judge whom I would assume to be impartial."

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