Overcoming the Ridings factor

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Two Dundee secondaries have merged despite bitter local opposition.

David Henderson reports on a success that has surprised even the city council.

Pupil walk-outs, parental rage, teacher distress, Militant involvement, demonstrations, resentment and bitterness. Last summer's merger between Whitfield and Linlathen high schools, on the Whitfield site, added another colourful chapter to Dundee's social history.

The City of Discovery discovered rapidly that the communities involved were prepared to go to the barricades, regardless of the local authority's arguments. Elsewhere in the city, Rockwell High parents voted to opt out rather than merge with Kirkton High.

Three months into the new session, Linlathen is no more. The majority of pupils and teachers have gone up the road to the neighbouring Whitfield estate to create the 920-pupil Braeview Academy. Whitfield had 600 pupils and Linlathen 500. Catchment areas were redrawn to redirect some pupils to Craigie High.

The smoke of battle died after the Labour-run council stuck to its guns. Educational and financial reasons dictated merger and more than Pounds 600,000 will be saved in the first full year. Pupils from rival estates are remarkably relaxed about the outcome, even if they harbour old loyalties.

Heather MacDonald, a sixth-year pupil, formerly of Whitfield, comments: "There is not much difference but the corridors are more crowded." Clare Cameron, a classmate, adds: "Everyone just got on with it, mixed well together and did their work." Pamela Barr agrees. "People thought there was going to be big fights, but there wasn't."

Most of the older Whitfield pupils regard Braeview as their old school with a few add-ons. A new tie was introduced (everyone received one free), and there were new teachers, more subjects to choose from, a changed dinner routine and busier classrooms.

From the Linlathen side, fifth-year pupils Jon Malloy and Alan Reid were anxious at moving two miles to Braeview. Alan says: "At the start, I was worried. I did not really want to come up but we have fitted in no problem. "

Talk about gang battles and violence was merely that, Jon says. "We thought there would be fights on the first day but there wasn't. It's been totally different. I knew some people in Whitfield and it made it a wee bit easier. " Both say some subjects are better taught and there are welcome initiatives like supported study.

Richard Toller, who as school board chairman led the campaign to save Linlathen, now chairs the Braeview board. Mr Toller says pupils and teachers have made the merger work. "A lot of my fears proved groundless," he admits. He knows of only one or two parents who remain unhappy.

Closure was accepted at Linlathen, Mr Toller says, "because we did not see there was anything we could do about it. We felt the council had made up its mind from the start." But he maintains: "A very good local school was lost. I still think that the closure or merger should not have happened. I like small schools and I think there are curriculum advantages." One major practical regret is the added expense to Linlathen parents of fares and school dinners. Pupils have to stay in school at lunchtime.

Judith Gillespie, former convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, says: "Parents hate school closures, however necessary, and it illustrates the conflict of individual views of parents and the requirement for a strategic management of a national education system. That is why parental choice will never deliver an education system that is in the national interest. It is the job of the local authority to say where there should be schools and where there should not be."

Alan Wilson, the headteacher, put the emphasis on integration. Thirty Linlathen staff transferred and pupil involvement has been one of the former Whitfield head's key themes. This included a vote on the combined school's name.

Pupil councils have been set up and are currently discussing whether to have a uniform. Common rooms serve as pupil retreats, peer support is up and running and up to 50 lunchtime clubs are attracting large numbers of pupils and staff. The majority of teachers volunteer to help out. A strong programme of community links is strengthening the school's identity and ethos.

Even the Whitfield football strips have been binned. New school, new colours. The current problem is finding a sponsor to back the new shirts. The pressure is on Wimpey, whose large private housebuilding programme is transforming the estate and the balance of the catchment area. "We decided on day one, ownership of the school was important. We said, it's your school," Mr Wilson recalls.

Some Pounds 200,000 has been spent at Braeview to accommodate the increased numbers while Dundee City Council has provided four extra staff to overcome initial problems. A 10-strong guidance team has tried to ensure a smooth transition and has interviewed all pupils.

A big selling point is the study support project, worth Pounds 400,000 over four years and funded by the Scottish Office Partnership project for the Whitfield estate. Six staff have been appointed for six hours a week. Studies continue in two sessions from 4pm-6pm and 6pm-8pm, and there are sessions during the school day. Up to 50 children have joined since the start of term.

Glen Taylor, education manager for the city council, admits the merger was hurried through but says this avoided the decline that hits schools with an uncertain future. Mr Taylor was at the end of the council's helpline in the spring and knows the ire the merger created. But closures were inevitable, he maintains. "The Whitfield population has halved from 15,000 to 6,000-7, 000. Time has moved on and a lot of issues have to be faced up to."

What were judged to be better facilities in the more modern Whitfield building, such as a swimming pool, decided where the merger should take place, although Tayside had spent considerable sums upgrading Linlathen. The science labs there will be transferred to Braeview shortly Braeview, Mr Taylor maintains, offered "more choice, more courses and better facilities". "It was not Whitfield mark two we were setting up. It took time for people to realise it was a new school in name, staffing and ethos and for Whitfield parents and staff it was unsettling," he says.

Now he confesses: "It is a success that has taken us by surprise but it is a new school that everyone can be proud of."

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