In peak condition

30th March 2012 at 01:00
A project that sees junior and senior pupils working together every week is yielding significant results, is getting hundreds of parents involved in school life and has helped the school to win a Cosla award

A collection of brightly-coloured clay animals is being filmed by pupils who are producing an animation re-telling a Mexican myth about a dog and a magical mask. It's the kind of creative project that few secondary school year groups get the chance to do in such depth, if at all.

But in the art room at Newbattle Community High, a class of S2s, S5s and S6s are all working together on the production, which will premiere to an audience of hundreds at the school's next showcase event.

Since becoming a School of Ambition in 2006, Newbattle has introduced this innovative integrated approach to learning and teaching, dubbed Peak Performance, combining junior and senior classes once a week. The idea is that older pupils lead the younger ones, and children and teachers have an opportunity to extend their interests, experience and talents.

S5 pupil Peter Cocking says: "It's good because I didn't have any space in my timetable to take art this year and I really enjoy it. Peak has allowed me to keep it on.

"Leadership was quite difficult at first, but it's a good experience. Working with S2 pupils is good because they have different ideas to us."

S2 pupil Christianne Hill adds: "I thought we would be drawing, I didn't think we would be able to try things like animation where you can use your imagination more. It's been great, we have all worked on the story and the characters."

Art and design teacher Anya Reynolds was a probationer when the Peak initiative began. She now leads the Dalkeith school's working group on Peak art, organising events such as fashion shows where parents can see what their children are achieving.

She says: "It's a chance for us to try things which we haven't tried before, including millinery and now animation, without the pressure of exams.

"It's quite challenging teaching two year groups together. Normally you would expect the seniors to take on a bigger role, but sometimes you find that the second-years are better at leading."

Recently, Newbattle launched extra classes in S3 and S4, known as "academies", to give pupils in these year groups a chance to widen their horizons further.

After asking teenagers and their parents what else they wanted to see on the curriculum, the school started running academies in the most popular subjects - physical education and the expressive arts.

At the end of S2, when pupils chose their normal eight exam subjects, they also picked two extra academy subjects which they study for three periods each week. The current choices are art, dance, basketball and football, with rugby and netball planned for next year. Academy pupils also gain extra qualifications, such as Intermediate 1 or 2 PE.

The combination of Peak and the academies has improved exam results so dramatically that they are now at their best since the school opened 42 years ago.

Last month Newbattle received an award for excellence from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) in recognition of the teamwork between staff and students in delivering their unique approach to the curriculum. Everyone from MPs and MSPs to Romanian school inspectors has been keen to see the Midlothian school for themselves.

"We're getting visited out," says acting headteacher Graham Moffat with a smile.

Not that he's complaining. Newbattle serves some of Scotland's most deprived communities, and Mr Moffat admits that there are "huge challenges" in educating pupils. The school believes that its current success lies in connecting with the traditional interests of people in these former mining towns.

"This is about raising pupils' aspirations and developing leadership in pupils and staff," Mr Moffat says. "We wanted to tap into what was already happening here to get some kind of halo effect, so we looked at the arts and physical education as vehicles for achieving that, given that both are quite well accepted in the community.

"There are still silver bands like Newtongrange and a lot of pupils from old mining towns are in bands. If we put on a music show for parents, it sells out. There is also a strong interest in football."

Although exam results suggest that the halo effect is happening, sparking pupils' interest in their wider education, Newbattle still falls behind schools in more affluent areas like Beeslack in Penicuik.

"We have not cracked it yet," Mr Moffat admits. "But we're closing the gap."

And success is not just about exams. One of the greatest achievements has been in increasing parental involvement in school life.

Sell-out events to showcase Peak projects like the Mexican animation are so popular that the school now holds two a year instead of one, doubling the number of parents who can see their children's work to 400. One of the most poignant performances was a mining musical entitled Trapped.

And pupils are not just all-singing and all-dancing - they do everything from constructing the stage and creating the costumes to selling tickets and hospitality.

Suzie Fegen, a PE teacher specialising in dance, says the influence of S5 dancers has helped to boost interest so much that she cannot meet future demand alone.

"Of 38 second-years, 37 want to do dance next year, so we need more dance teachers. It's a nice problem to have."

Meanwhile, pupils are staying on beyond S4 and S5 at unprecedented levels, and staff have noticed a significant reduction in disciplinary problems. The new approach has also noticeably changed pupils' appearance, with the majority now following the official dress code.

Head of physical education Bob Foley arrives in one of the school's sweatshirts with the words "Football Academy" emblazoned across the back. He knows first-hand how sport and dedicated teachers can help pupils in tough areas succeed.

"I grew up in a difficult part of Edinburgh and sport changed my life. My maths teacher and the head at Gracemount got me and two of my pals into slalom canoeing. We ended up canoeing for Scotland, then Great Britain, and all three of us became PE teachers. It was all down to those two teachers who put the effort in. We're doing that every day at Newbattle."

Percentage of S4 pupils achieving five or more awards at SCQF

Level 5 (Standard grade Credit level or equivalent) or better

Schoolarea 08-09 09-10 10-11

Newbattle Community High 15% 17% 20%

Beeslack Community High 46% 47% 44%

Midlothian 33% 31% 31%

Scotland 35% 36% 35%

400 - The number of parents attending public performances at Newbattle, which showcase pupils' work.

50 - The percentage rise in pupils obtaining three or more passes at Level 6 (Highers) by the end of S6 between 2007 and 2011.

Bouncing back

It's hard to miss Conor Fitzpatrick in the dining hall at Newbattle Community High these days. Since he left the Dalkeith school, he has been seen far more often than when he first started here as a pupil.

A giant image of the teenager in a basketball game is splashed across one wall, celebrating his status as Sky Sports Living for Sport Student of the Year 2010.

Youngsters from feeder primaries who come here for juice and a biscuit as part of a "fast track to success" programme can't help looking up to him.

Conor is literally the poster boy for the school's basketball academy, without which he might never have turned his life around.

"In S2 Conor just never came to school," says Newbattle's head of physical education, Bob Foley. "But when he joined the basketball academy, he enjoyed it so much and he started training the younger ones. Then he was recognised by Sky Sports.

"His whole family has been changed by this academy. He's got a younger sister here now, whose school attendance is much better than his was.

"And Conor is just one of many," Mr Foley adds. "Pupils here want to help others, not just themselves. The little ones from P7 now all look at that poster and say `I want to be like him'."

The academies are extra classes offered to meet pupils' interests, increasing their choices and chances to obtain additional qualifications.

In basketball, pupils do Intermediate 1 or 2 qualifications in PE, with sports like swimming incorporated into lessons to meet the exam criteria while providing relevant fitness training for their main discipline.

For Conor, the academy got him so interested in school again that he became an ambassador for Newbattle at local primaries. He is now doing an electrician apprenticeship.

In the school gym, a group of current senior and junior pupils are playing basketball together under the school's Peak Performance initiative to boost leadership and learning.

Abby Mellon, S2, grins: "I love working with the seniors. They all share what they have learned and they're really encouraging."

The S5 and S6 pupils here today have experienced the Peak approach as second-years, so they know what it's like for youngsters such as Abby.

She has also gained experience in public speaking after giving a presentation about Newbattle's innovative work to local government body Cosla, which has just given the school a national award for excellence.

"I was a bit nervous speaking at first but then it was just fun. I'm really proud that we have won an award," Abby adds.

Praising Peak, PE teacher Annette Alexander says: "The biggest difference is the relationship between juniors and seniors, the friendly banter they have, with juniors wanting to work with certain seniors who act as model performers.

"The junior ones see how the senior pupils talk to teachers like adults. It makes pupils much more relaxed."

The approach also gives teachers opportunities to develop professionally, whatever their job level.

"I'm an unpromoted member of staff, but this is my academy and I run it."

The enthusiasm of teachers like Ms Alexander is also a driving force, Mr Foley says: "It challenges you as head of department, in a good way. It creates a pace of learning among colleagues and that is picked up by the children and their parents."

Photo by Drew Farell: Peter Cocking, 16, and Christanne Hill, 13, put their heads together during an animation class at Newbattle Community High

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