I'm not sure who coined the phrase "darkest Lanarkshire" and, being a Lanarkshire girl myself, I've often bristled at it. However, I had to admit that, lost at 10 o'clock on a rainy night near Motherwell in January, the description fitted to a T.
The North Lanarkshire conference "Raising attainment for all"
had seemed a good idea when the glossy brochure arrived on my desk. The agenda looked interesting; schools were doing something innovative and effective. I knew I had to find out more.
The practicalities for rural teachers trying to access courses and conferences in the central belt are, however, quite daunting. We have a choice between leaving after school and travelling down the night before a conference (with a sarnie on the run) or leaving at some antisocial time in the wee hours, risking ungritted roads only to get caught up in morning rush-hour jams. The former is how I usually do it.
However, I'm glad to say that despite the long dreich hungry journey, getting lost in darkest Lanarkshire and the hotel intruder alarm, which went off at 4am and kept ringing for an hour, the trip was well worth it.
I was bowled over in the opening moments of the conference, as St Ambrose High senior choir entertained us. (They have boys in their choir!) We listened to Peter Peacock exhorting us to be "bold" in our approaches, using phrases such as "free up", "less diktat", "taking initiative at school level" and "more trust". His words rang true (despite Keith Grammar's mauling by HMIE) and he was there in person, backing all that Michael O'Neill and his team in North Lanarkshire are doing.
The national Schools of Ambition project has been disappointing for many of us who didn't get the opportunity to participate. It was a laudable idea and welcomed by schools eager to break out of the straitjacket, enhance their provision and do something really creative. But, as with so many national initiatives, it was big on ideas and PR but small on resources.
Only 20 schools across the country are involved.
However, North Lanarkshire schools are not with the rest of us left out in the desert. They were given the opportunity to bid towards becoming "enhanced comprehensives" and to receive resources and support to develop areas of strength. So far, the authority has three sports comprehensives, a music comprehensive and now an enterprise comprehensive. The ultimate aim is to have all its schools enhanced.
There is a great deal to be admired in this project apart from the vision, flair and creative thinking. The aims are inclusive and the schools are not about developing an "elite" but providing opportunities for all. The values are admirable; this is about educating the whole child and not just about attainment.
But what impressed me personally, as a Lanarkshire lass, was the (justified) pride, confidence and skill which the young people involved displayed.
North Lanarkshire has achieved this against a backcloth of high unemployment and deprivation. If it can do it, we all can, and its success is a testament to its commitment to young people and to the future of the area.
During the questions session, Mr O'Neill suggested that schools look closely at their budgets, try to "bundle" enough resources together to grow areas of strength and start from there. For although the Schools of Ambition project may be extended, it is unlikely to involve all of us and, as with other initiatives, the roll-out phase is likely to be funded at substantially lower levels. Thus, for many of us the only option we may have to enhance our provision will be to follow Mr O'Neill's sage advice and do it ourselves.
Such conferences, which inspire, examine new ideas and practices and provide possible directions, are rare these days in Scottish education and North Lanarkshire is to be congratulated for showcasing its schools. More of the same, please!
www.northlan.gov.ukLinda Kirkwood is headteacher of Oban HighIf you have any comments, email email@example.com