Ian Nicol visits a school that is fighting against the odds to provide real opportunities for the community it serves
The approach to Castlebrae Community High School in Edinburgh's Craigmillar estate takes you past empty houses awaiting renovation, with plastic sheeting nailed over their gaping windows. A stone's throw away stand modernised private homes sparkling with pride and with books on the window ledges.
This is the most economically depressed area of the Lothians. But it has shown a remarkable commitment to self-regeneration. Headteacher Willie Crosbie views his catchment area as a community of diversity which has many complex needs.
Castlebrae has a roll of 275 school-age pupils with just over 40 in Years 5 and 6. It is a designated community school with extended opening hours and about 200 adult learners attending courses, from basic skills to Highers. Yet the Castlebrae philosophy has remained firmly child-centred in the face of repeated threats of closure because of a falling roll.
"At the end of the day it is what happens in the classroom that matters, " says Mr Crosbie. The school now emphasises achievement, target-setting and higher expectations built on praise and reward strategies: "Anything from writing an encouraging comment in the jotter - and we know it has not always happened - and giving attention to youngsters getting on with the business instead of focusing on those who are misbehaving".
The policy seems to be bearing fruit. Seventeen-year-old Glen Mitchell, who wants to go on to study engineering at Edinburgh University, says: "It does notmatter what your ability is, you feel encouraged to work hard."
In terms of external yardsticks, such as examination results, the school can demonstrate its progress. A personal learning programme is introduced for every first-year pupil, which takes into account the full picture from primary school profiles and enables the school to start from the position of the pupil's own level of attainment.
By taking individual differences into account, this strategy aims to improve the performance of the most able and the least able, both of which are important for the school's success.
Guidance teacher Gordon Young says that poor self-esteem, lack of self-confidence and low aspirations, are being addressed in the school's personal and social development programme.
An "In Step" scheme gets families working together with the school. Project coordinator Angus Hardie leads a team of outreach workers who focus on supporting the transition from primary to sec- ondary and from school to workplace or continuing education.
Fifth-year Gavin Johnston attributes his career plan to study computer science at Heriot Watt University to support from In Step, which gave him access to personal tuition and arrangedvisits to the university campus.
The In Step team also builds links with local employers and the World of Work Unit, which helps pupils to identify and develop relevant transferable skills.
The school has developed a "Simmers Bakery Challenge" in partnership with a local bakery firm and with the Friends of Craigmillar - a group of some 50 business executives who work in partnership with individuals and interest groups in the community. This involves the design, production and marketing of a bakery product, plus business plan.
Friends of Craigmillar co-ordinator Barry Sealy says that the group provides private sector skills and experience to help with education, training and employment. He adds that itis a success story of collaboration between private and public sectors for the common good.
Castlebrae has also forged some special links with colleges and universities and established a Supported Study Centre to encourage pupils to pursue their ambitions to the highest levels.
Through In Step, pupils and their families are encouraged to look ahead to tertiary education. Senior pupils can attend a special summer school at the university the year before entering. In 1996 three pupils took up university courses in the sciences, and the post-school destination analysis continues to show general improvement.
The school's outreach programme works with parents to increase their understanding of education and to raise their expectations. Contact begins at the primary stage and a home-link team visits parents of Primary 7 pupils before they progress to secondary level.
There is also close liaison with the social work department, the welfare service and other organisations. About 15 per cent of pupils have been identified as consistently unresponsive to the opportunities of the curriculum. They are being identified early and offered flexible, positive learning support, since Castlebrae is committed to opportunity for all.
For some years, contemplating improvement or closure, the school has been driven by an imperative for radical change, led by staff development and good planning. From fast-track learning to maintaining the building, the management plan aims to develop an ethos based on experiencing success.
Whether or not it survives as such, Castlebrae is a remarkable example of a school that has adapted to new conditions to make the odds more equal for many of its pupils.