Education is not always a high priority for families living in abject poverty, but it may be their best hope for a better life. Raymond Ross reports on how two schools are working to make a difference
Driving along a street in the east end of Kirkcaldy with Viewforth High school's rector Ian Baxter, we pass some council houses boarded up, not an unusual sight in an area of deprivation. What is more unusual are the battered, run-down caravans parked outside some of the others.
"Some of these houses hardly have a stick of furniture in them," he tells me.
"Some of the tenants have even ripped up the floor boards. Now they live in these caravans. If a pupil is living in conditions like this, then school work probably isn't their top priority."
Although these conditions are the extreme rather than the norm for Viewforth's catchment area, it is hardly surprising that the Viewforth area group of schools, which includes Pathhead, Dysart, Sinclairtown and Kirkcaldy North primaries, has been identified as facing major challenges in raising attainment.
With money from the Scottish Executive's Excellence Fund, an education action plan has been put in place to raise attainment using a whole raft of measures. Under the "Viewforth Plan", put into effect this session, the high school and its associated primaries together receive pound;200,000 a year for the next three years. "When you realise my allocation for running this school is pound;25,000 a year, you can see this is a huge cash injection," says Mr Baxter. "For a start it means each pupil can have a text book".
But the action plan goes much further, with a restructuring of the curriculum in both primary and secondary sectors to make it more accessible to the less able pupil, radical changes to the P7S1 interface and innovative use of ICT, as well as active partnerships with Fife College, St Andrews University and parents.
An area co-ordinator has been seconded to manage and monitor the whole operation along with an ICT co-ordinator, a secondary support teacher (mostly for literacy and numeracy which the action plan regards as fundamental to raising attainment in any subject), two classroom assistants for all aspects of the action plan, and an extra teacher for each of the primaries.
Area co-ordinator Peter Wright says: "The plan is very pupil-centred across the spectrum from nursery to Higher Still. We're specifically trying to break down the primary-secondary barrier, aiming for a seamless transition. Secondary is not a new start. It's a continuation.
"We meet with primary headteachers every two weeks. There's a greater flow of information on individual pupils and their progress can be tracked throughout. We use primary teachers' expertise in the high school, in maths for instance, and we are drawing on their experience to progress into S1 and S2, where we have reduced the number of new teachers these pupils are exposed to from 16 to 12. We're trying to take the best practice wherever we find it.
"At the moment we have P7 pupils coming into the school every day to take classes ranging from ICT and science to home economics. After Easter this will be expanded to include P6 pupils."
Using Excellence Fund money, the school has installed a state-of-the-art computer suite and is embedding ICT across the curriculum. It also hopes to make a further bid through the Government's New Opportunities Fund for an independent learning system, a hardware and software package for helping children with reading and maths (see opposite page). As a result of these measures the expectations of primary parents have risen, with 300 attending the last P6P7 parents night at th high school.
"Like the pupils, the parents are fascinated by the new computers," says Mr Wright. "By next session we want parents to be able to come in between 4pm and 6pm to work with their children on the computers, and we hope to use this as a springboard to further parental involvement in homework clubs and so on to help take the school out to the community."
Motivating pupils who experience difficulties in the curriculum also lies behind Viewforth's radical approach to S2-S6, which exploits opportunities within Higher Still, Standard grade and college links.
The school is developing new opportunities for appropriate progression routes, combination courses, vocational provision and group awards.
"It is proposed that a review of progression routes and pathways be undertaken in the light of the proposals to relax the age and stage restriction at Standard grade and the implementation of Higher Still," states the Viewforth action plan.
Working with Fife College, the school is able to give pupils access to combinations of intermediate units in some Higher Still subjects and vocational courses. "Industrial catering, advanced music and technical subjects are some of the areas which could be pursued," says depute rector David Dickson. "Our pupils could attend college for some courses, or college lecturers could come here. We hope to have this in place by next session."
The school's study support programme runs breakfast classes at 8am, lunchtime classes and twilight classes every evening including Fridays. They are also sending S4 pupils to St Andrews University for a special course in the last week of this term to raise attainment levels for their Standard grades. The progress of those pupils will be tracked for the next two years.
A pilot is being run for 20 S1S2 boys, looking at underachievement in order to raise self-esteem and attainment. This will be evaluated in May. Viewforth is also thinking about running a joint summer school with Buckhaven and Kirkland high schools, which share similar catchment areas, to promote study skills, self-confidence and team building for S3 pupils going into S4. The idea is to boost the initial stages of S4 and hopefully have an impact on Standard grade results.
"We are constantly looking at innovative ideas and radical constructs," says Mr Dickson. "Quality is a journey, not a destination. We are looking at a growing, positive ethos in all the schools in the group and to make that sustainable. If you do what you've always done you'll only get what you've always had. You need to create a climate of openness and experiment."
Viewforth is also training two staff members, including Peter Wright, in positive behaviour management to promote attainment. In turn, they will train staff at Viewforth and the associated primaries.
"To make an education action plan effective you have to win over staff, pupils and parents. Everyone has to show commitment," says rector Ian Baxter. "My delight is the way it's being taken on as a team working across all the schools. And parents respond too. We are extending our Easter revision school here to include Standard grades as well as Highers in response to parental expectations."
"If you raise expectations among staff, pupils and parents over three years then there will be a way forward. The answer is to be creative," says Mr Wright.
"The advantage we are exploiting here is that we're a small school with the four primaries within walking distance," he adds. And although the area has serious deprivation problems, it is also a community which has identified strongly with the school since it was built in 1908.