Pick 'n' mix ethos helps interest and confidence

8th August 2008 at 01:00

The pupils are taking over at Islay High - and teachers are delighted.

This is no classroom insurrection. Instead, staff have implemented a policy of handing over the reins, reaping the reward of improved behaviour and an atmosphere of calm which is remarked upon by every visitor to the Hebridean school. It is also a mark of the school's self-confidence - a trait which was commented upon when it won the Learning and Teaching Scotland "ambition award" at the education oscars.

One of the most fundamental innovations has been to let S3-6 pupils make up their own timetables from a list of subject options. "Teachers say the classes are extremely focused now," says Elizabeth Cunningham, headteacher. "Older students are determined not to be overtaken, and the younger ones think, 'I'm going to be at least as good as you.'"

The management team also strives to ensure that, whatever the mix of subjects chosen, pupils are not told they cannot do a subject because the time-table will not allow it. Dr Cunningham believes that forcing pupils to sit in classes which hold no interest for them is a "soul-destroying" experience leading to apathy and bad behaviour. "I would behave badly in such a situation," she says.

The school has also broadened pupils' horizons by introducing unconventional classes and breaking down the divide between vocational and academic education.

An informal curriculum is followed two afternoons each week, during which teachers' private passions come to the fore in non-certificated classes. Subjects have included podcasting, healthy eating, archaeology, street dance, psychology, film appreciation, film-making and creative crafts. "It breaks down barriers about learning," says Dr Cunningham. "It also helps bridge the them-and-us divide."

The school recently opened a vocational centre, with help from Argyll College and funding from the Schools of Ambition programme. Pupils can study for certificates in subjects such as con- struction craft, beauty, hairdressing. If such courses were not available at school, pupils would have to make long treks to the mainland. To reach college in Oban, for example, takes a two-and-a-half hour boat journey and another two hours on the road.

The importance given to vocational courses has helped to dash the idea that they are only for the less academically minded. Those hoping to become architects have seen the value of learning about construction, while university-bound sixth-year boys have taken up hairdressing to learn skills which might help them earn a few pounds between lectures.

The enthusiastic response to the vocational centre shows in the entrepreneurial drive of hairdressing pupils. "They sidle up to you and say, 'You're going away somewhere, aren't you Miss?

Hairdressing appointment?'" says Dr Cunningham.

Pupils are also using their initiative and enthusiasm to help the community. Bowmore residents come in for hairdressing appointments, flowers are grown for elderly people's homes, and some pupils carried out research into elderly people's fears of falling before presenting the findings to the local health board. "School should not just be a place you get in touch with if you have a complaint or a concern," says Dr Cunningham.

There is a confidence in the school that leads to innovation: it is now famous for being a near paperless school by embracing computer technology; and pupils are working with Glasgow architecture centre, The Lighthouse, on a new art block designed to let in natural light.

Education awards judges professed to being hugely impressed by the "can do" attitude of the school's 240 pupils and their capacity for taking responsibility for their own choices. The confidence of Islay High pupils in their ability, however, requires teachers to accept that sometimes their young charges know best - as even Dr Cunningham has found.

"I was teaching a class and thought I had done this excellent PowerPoint presentation, but one first-year boy said: 'Why are you doing this the long way?'"

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