Shining new light on a global vision
Summing up their school in one word isn't easy for teachers, especially when several awards have come its way and it is now shortlisted for Outstanding Secondary School in the TES Schools Awards. But why should pupils get all the hard questions?
The teachers at St Ninian's High, Kirkintilloch, struggle to answer for a moment. "Innovative," suggests one. "Nurturing," says another. "Enthusiastic and passionate," says a third. "It was supposed to be just one word," a colleague reminds him, and they laugh.
The TES awards are looking for "real innovation across the board" and hard evidence of its good effects, says headteacher Paul McLaughlin. The trouble is that the latter doesn't always flow from the former. "You don't know when you start something new that it will lead to improvement. It is about willingness to take a risk."
As a School of Ambition, St Ninian's High received extra funding to take some risks and transform the learning, he says: "It was about engaging kids, about making what happens here more exciting more often."
That funding has ended, but because it was used to change attitudes, there is a lasting legacy: "The culture has changed - a lot of things we now do don't need huge amounts of money," he says.
"Take the modern languages event, where we suspend the timetable for a day and give a fun programme to a whole year-group. We used to bring mentors from Strathclyde University to deliver that. But we've done it for five years, so the teachers can now deliver it themselves. We also have other one-day events - maths puzzles, science fun, food challenges - and when you ask kids at the end of the year for its highlights, it's those days they remember best."
Sometimes pupils are released from the timetable for more than a day, says Mark O'Neill (S5). The school sent him to China as part of his Mandarin course: "I remember a market in Beijing, where people were eating things like dog, scorpion, silkworm, sea-horse. I'm now hoping to go on to university and study Chinese combined with business."
Aileen Park (S6) went on a week-long symposium at sea around Iceland, and had her birthday on board. "They gave us freedom to roam about on board and meet interesting people from schools all over Scotland. Some of the young people from the Faroes had hairstyles that made them look like tropical fish," she says.
These voyages had a serious purpose, says Kevin Murphy (S6): "It was about trying new technology and boosting people's confidence. We did loads of presentations, and a lot of the technology that makes lessons active and enjoyable we now have in the school."
Taking a risk with new ideas leads to growth, says Mary Doherty, principal teacher of English: "You need the freedom to experiment. Sometimes it won't work, but you have to be allowed to make mistakes."
It's a vital message for pupils too, she says: "I tell them to have a go. We show them we are prepared to take a chance and get things wrong at times."
For English teacher David Miller, Secondary Teacher of the Year in the 2008 UK Teaching Awards and now writing a book on Curriculum for Excellence, the success of St Ninian's - whether measured by awards, HMIE report (three excellents and 10 very goods) or just the happy atmosphere - is a result of "a shared narrative with the child at the centre". "This is a school that provides for almost every aspect of a child's needs. Our pupils are engaged with children all over the world - Europe, Japan, China, Africa. It's a school with a global vision, that's also very close to the local community. That's a brilliant duality - to carry a message around the world while remaining true to your roots and values."
Those values grow out of the strong Catholic ethos at the school, say pupils. "It's about loving your neighbour," says Katy Hughes (S3). "As Catholics, we should do good and help other people. But as people we should be doing that anyway."
Katy came from a primary outside the catchment area, so knew no one at St Ninian's at first. "I was on my own, which knocked my confidence. But it's a friendly school. You can talk to teachers. It's open and accepting and they give you lots of opportunities. So I've now got good friends, I know what I'm doing with my life and I am pretty confident."
Aileen adds: "Communicating through the pupil council and across year- groups is a big thing with Mr McLaughlin. We have lots of activities that get sixth-years working with younger pupils."
A good example is Columba 1400, says Sarah Irons (S6). "They send a mix of pupils to Skye to develop leadership and build your confidence," she says. "You learned to communicate because you were presenting, discussing in groups and doing outdoor activities. It was lots of fun but you had to focus."
Third-year Kevin Brown moved here from another secondary and sees pupil- teacher relationships as "extraordinary". Teachers are "busy but always have time for you", he says.
With no warning of the question, Mr McLaughlin - Headteacher of the Year in the 2009 Scottish Education Awards - doesn't hesitate: "One word to sum up this school? Relationships. It's the key focus at all levels - pupil to pupil, pupil to teacher, teacher to teacher.
"I'm not saying we've cracked it. You never become the excellent school. You have to keep working at it. But if the relationships are right, you can do just about anything."
Exam results and behaviour have improved greatly at St Ninian's, he says. "But we didn't set out to improve those. We were aiming for better relationships, values and attitudes. That was one of the pressures with School of Ambition. They wanted us to say what hard statistics we would improve. So we said the SQA results would get better. We didn't know that. It was a risk. But I believed that if we improved relationships and attitudes, all the other stuff would fall into place.
"And it did."