Fay Black made her presence felt in Connel the day she arrived. Since then, says Seonag MacKinnon, this pioneering head has transformed the school
When Her Majesty's Inspector asked the headteacher of Achaleven Primary in Argyll, what she thought of the draft report on her school, she replied that it was OK. Fay Black, who had then been in charge of the school for 19 years, says: "The inspector practically fell off his chair and shouted at me, 'OK? Most teachers would give their lives for a report like that.' It was only then that I realised our school was special."
Since that inspection four years ago, this lochside primary in the village of Connel, near Oban, which was under threat of closure 10 years ago, has received confirmation that it is out of the ordinary. It won a Pounds 1,000 national ethos award last term from the Scottish Office and recently received a national curriculum award from the Society of Education Officers and Association of Directors of Education in Scotland. Of the 200 schools to receive this award, only six are Scottish.
Miss Black maintains that Achaleven is not one of the best schools in the country. "I think there are many schools doing a good job," she says. "They are just not necessarily getting recognition for it."
After the HMI report, however, the area education officer convened a public meeting to ensure that local people realised the full wonder of the appraisal. Since then, the roll has climbed from 32 to 58 and virtual capacity of 65 from August because of placing requests.
Parents John Lyon and Moira Dunlop believe the school is outstanding. When any child is taking part in a special event, for example, a member of staff is almost always present - even when the event is unconnected with the school.
"It amazes me, since these things can be a little boring even for the parents," says Mrs Dunlop. "If it is important to the child, the head or perhaps a teacher will be there in their free time. They look for every opportunity to support the children. The children grow up feeling that who they are and what they do is valued."
A transport-mad child who proudly wears to school his new birthday present of a mechanic's boiler suit is congratulated and asked lots of questions. A boy who has just started piano lessons is encouraged to play to the rest of his class the very first notes he can put together. And these events are chronicled in photos on the wall.
Miss Black says she can put in this extra effort because she is unmarried. Unlike many teachers, she has no family responsibilities preventing her from working the hours she wants. She describes the 600-strong village as "more or less an extended family". Parents and villagers call her by her first name. She meets pupils in the local swimming pool, at the village church, in neighbouring houses. There seems to be no real distance between her and the children.
Mrs Dunlop, however, stresses that while children are close to staff, they are not over-familiar. "The school is quite strict. The children aren't angels but they know how they are expected to behave. I agree with that strictness, because the children know where they are and feel very secure."
Indiscipline is such an infrequent and minor event that there is no formal policy of escalating levels of sanctions. Talking to a child's parents is the strongest measure the school has ever had to take. "We usually just have to look at the children," says Miss Black. "They get upset if they feel they have let us down."
Respect between teachers and pupils does a lot to prevent indiscipline. Children were, for example, consulted on the formation of new school rules, including those for teachers: "Be positive, be on time, be enthusiastic. "
A strong motivation to work seems to discourage disruption. Children are particularly enthusiastic about "target jotters", their weekly objectives in different subjects. rents have, on occasion, had to order ill children to stay at home, so keen are they to keep up with their individual plan of action.
The scheme minimises boredom and slack time. During The TESScotland visit, there was no disturbance to be heard from the head's composite class of P5, 6 and 7 down the corridor, even though she was absent for the best part of two hours. Children evaluate all their assignments, giving their opinion on how enjoyable or difficult they found them. The jotters go home at the end of term and parents are invited to give their comments, too.
The opinions of parents, pupils and staff on many aspects of the school have been canvassed in questionnaires, most recently last November. Parents commented positively on the happy family atmosphere of the school, on the staff's caring attitude, and on the way in which they encouraged individualism and self-confidence.
They also called for Argyll and Bute council to provide a new building or an extension to the existing one, which is so full that there is no assembly hall and one class has to clear away whatever it is doing half way through the day so that lunches can be served.
Miss Black points out that it is not in her power to order building work and she rejects a call for an annual prize-giving. "If introduced, it would have to be for those who tried the hardest, not who was best," she says.
The questionnaire responses have, however, prompted the school to erect railings and gates to give better protection from the main road and also led to the creation of a football team run by parents.
The curriculum award trustee who visited the school with two assessors was particularly struck by parental support, in the form of a fundraising coffee evening that raised Pounds 1,000 and voluntary work. Ann Graham, for example, is a trained musician, whose work with the children has earned the school sweeping success at music competitions. Others take children for cycling proficiency, sewing, baking and first aid. And when Achaleven won the curriculum award, the trip to London for several representatives was funded by a local hotel, the medical centre and individual well-wishers.
The award trustee was also struck by how confident and articulate the children were, traits not commonly associated with the Scottish education system. Constant praise, frequent requests for the children's opinions, and an insistence that pupils make eye contact while speaking and do not interrupt each other in class all seem to contribute to these traits.
The head began to build a relationship with parents and other villagers during her first few days at the school in 1978. They heard a power saw dismantling battered old cupboards and saw the departure of two lorry-loads of ancient books and iron-frame desks. The first money to be spent on the school in years was prised from Strathclyde Council, and parents were invited into the school. They deduced that Miss Black was not the kind of old-school Highland head who kowtows to landowners and favours the doctor's son.
It was made clear to parents that they were free to walk in to the school at any time, and evening workshops were set up so that they could try out art and other pupil activities. Villagers without children were also invited into the school to be entertained by the children. The foundations of today's relationship with the village were laid.
Miss Black, who worked in Easterhouse at the beginning of her career, accepts that she started with definite advantages in Achaleven - namely, classes of 16 pupils, mostly from secure backgrounds. But she believes her strategies can make significant inroads in deprived areas, too.
"These are the places that are crying out for support," she says. "If you go in and show you really care, the response you get is terrific. I got so involved in Easterhouse, someone asked me why I didn't just move my bed int