Self-help at Forres
Alistair Maclachlan, rector of Forres Academy in Moray, should recognise the experience of the first person who said the world was round. There was an outburst of anger in the national press in 1988 when he established the Forres Academy Enrichment Fund to support extra-curricular activities.
In five years the fund raised nearly Pounds 140,000 as a charitable trust with assets ranging from investment accounts to a managed forest. But Mr Maclachlan's not bitter. A careful man, he has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve and the strong support of his school board.
"The idea of the enrichment fund was born of the school's financial problem of maintaining a high level of extra-curricular involvement in a remote, rural area at a time of rampant inflation," wrote board member Alison Stewart in a recent report for the Scottish School Board Association.
On the one hand, staff were suffering from fatigue brought on by massive curriculum development; on the other hand, parents and the community seemed to be doing little to support the broader education of their children.
A self-help ethos now permeates not only management strategies but also the entire curriculum and even the community. Mr Maclachlan writes to parents, asking them to help provide "more than simple schooling and ensure that a wonderful all-round educational experience is delivered". To achieve this, the school uses various routes.
Academy Link is one that involves parents and local helpers in activities ranging from disco supervision and mentoring through to helping with pupil induction arrangements. According to link worker and parent Jane Yeadon, "The resources are infinite if you share with people. There are ways they can help that they don't even know."
Mrs Yeadon recalls that "manning the lavvy at the school disco" was a learning process in itself - and adds: "We need to do more things for ourselves and take control."
The school vision places emphasis on having a strong sense of hope. From an area afflicted by the decline of the rural economy in the north east and with unemployment running at 17.5 per cent and youth unemployment a particular feature, the enrichment fund has helped to broaden pupil horizons by supporting visits to Pelussin in France, Vienenburg in Germany and an orphanage near Moscow.
"Before we knew it the two weeks were over and we had to leave," wrote one of the pupils in the school newsletter. "For everyone the journey was an amazing and unique experience. The Russians we met were friendly and giving; even though they did not have much, they were happy. They had a rich culture of stories and songs which they gladly shared with us. Many flaws in our own materialistic culture were revealed to us by our visit."
Back at school, pupils can enjoy billiard tables in social areas, while discovering the rewards of team work and creativity in the curriculum. Senior pupil Emma Murray recently gained the first ever Science Platinum award in the UK for her research on aspirin.
Why should Forres Academy pupils be so lucky? Depute rector Ian Allanach defends the enrichment scheme with total conviction. He says, "If we didn't provide these resources ourselves, nobody else would. Everything we do is extra to the funding provided by the local authority. It's for different things. "
Pupils are expected to generate ideas and develop organisational skills, and the staff listen to them. Senior pupils, for example, are engaged in the Forres Forum in which a community group, including 25 per cent young people, meets to develop and plan the delivery of a programme for the future, based on youth matters. They are also offered the chance of running school facilities on the business model of a leisure centre over the lunch break.
Any group wishing to start a particular activity has to apply to the pupil office, called Scene. Each activity requires a written constitution and a list of members. If a particular room or PE area is needed, the group has to get staff agreement. Once the club has been formed, the pupils do all the administration, with staff help available if needed.
James Anderson, an S4 pupil, says, "People who are thinking about their future know that it is a good thing and that it will help them in the long run. " Claire Hestor (S5) adds: "We have to be trusted to work together to make it work." Both admit it may not be easy, but assistant head Caroline Hastie, who works on personal and social development programmes in the senior school, argues that if good initiatives fail, that in itself offers valuable lessons.
The record of success, however, is impressive. Some senior pupils recently funded and worked to construct a bus shelter in the playground, to the value of several thousand pounds. Now they are promoting a national conference on the issue of young people having more say in their own education.
Forres Academy is not a paradise on earth. Shortages extend to the photocopying of worksheets but there is a remarkable effort to address continuing problems. Assistant head Fiona Hewitte co-ordinates the behaviour management scheme which supports children who may have different values, to achieve agreed outcomes. The general climate of empowerment supports important initiatives in counselling and mentoring involving peer group support, and partnerships with the community and local businesses and agencies.
Forres Academy could have languished in a backwater of despondency and complaints about the resources it doesn't get. Instead the school has become a dynamo of enterprise. Mr Maclachlan says, "The culture is about working together to make things better. If you can do something, you should. It's a can-do philosophy."
About two years ago the Scottish School Board Association held a conference in Aberdeen about creative asset management in schools. A director of education informed the conference that he could not support the generation of resources by schools for their own purposes, because it would lead to inequality of provision. He was received with rapturous applause by many of the audience, no doubt relieved that they were formally exonerated from doing something for themselves. His negative view of human potential was out of touch with the spirit of these times. That conference should have been held at Forres Academy. It would have been an education.