School of ambition had 'major weaknesses'

20th January 2012 at 00:00
Inspection report reveals exemplary institution is serious underperformer

A special school in West Lothian, once lauded as an exemplary "school of ambition" and a double-winner in the Scottish Education Awards, has received one of the worst reports yet under Education Scotland's new inspection regime.

Burnhouse School in Whitburn, for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, was graded "unsatisfactory" for its curriculum and meeting learning needs and "weak" for learners' experiences, improvements in performance and self-evaluation.

The inspection team's record of inspection findings (RIF), obtained by TESS under a Freedom of Information inquiry, reveals concerns about lessons that are too focused on textbook or workbook tasks, limited opportunities to use technology, and a too ready acceptance by staff of "smoking, spitting, swearing and use of racist language".

The RIF, a confidential support document for senior management, also reports very limited use of accreditation schemes such as Asdan, inappropriate use of financial rewards to get young people to comply, and lack of systematic tracking of progress.

It catalogues "major weaknesses in the curriculum", and insufficient progress in literacy, numeracy and well-being.

Although it recognises that staff are sensitive and responsive to the pupils' care and welfare needs, the range of approaches employed to support young people's behaviour management is too narrow, says the report.

It refers to "regular violent incidents" and a lack of awareness of additional support for learning legislation; none of its pupils has a coordinated support plan.

Nevertheless, it credits the school's new headteacher, Laura Quilter, with a "clear and appropriate vision for the school".

Mrs Quilter, who took up post less than two months before the inspection in October, is described as "setting out suitably challenging and high expectations for young people's attendance, behaviour and achievements".


A previous highly-critical HMIE report, in May 2004, led to the appointment of Margaret Gibson as head in January 2005. Two weeks after she joined the school, her husband died, but after a brief absence she returned.

Her aim, she told TESS, was to give pupils "a sense of belonging" - that they were being respected and valued and capable of learning.

In June 2005, Burnhouse joined the Labour-led Scottish Executive's Schools of Ambition programme and was hailed as a model of good practice.

In June 2007, it won two categories in the Scottish Education Awards - one for "ambition", the other for "most enterprising special school". On the day of the awards, Mrs Gibson's son died.

In early 2008, just as she was making a gradual return to work, her mother died.

When she finally did return, she found the school had changed in her absence and reported difficulties to the council in merging the alternative and mainstream curricula.

West Lothian Council carried out an internal inspection and in February, 2009, suggested she take early retirement. For two years she resisted, but poor health and legal costs led her to accept defeat and resign in December 2010.

"This is not a good outcome for the kids and the staff must be feeling devastated to see that. I just wish I could make it right, or help," she said.

Photo credit: Kirk O'Rourke

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