Starting from scratch

2nd September 2011 at 01:00
A pound;7 million school in Highland is fast becoming the focal point of a brand new community near Inverness - and it's bringing a fresh approach to learning out into the open

High up on a hillside overlooking Inverness, Milton of Leys Primary has a panoramic view of the Kessock Bridge spanning the Beauly Firth to the Black Isle, with distant mountains filling the horizon.

The school blog was up and running for months before the school opened, encouraging the children to vote for their favourite choice of school badge. The result is emblazoned on the bright red sweatshirts they also chose and shows the Kessock Bridge with the waves of the firth underneath, set against a mountainous background.

"It's certainly the highest school that I'm aware of," says the school's headteacher, Robert Quigley, who crosses the bridge every day to come to work. "I can see it probably from three or four miles before I get to the Kessock Bridge - this silver beacon in the sky."

It's an unusual-looking, single-storey building with the uppermost section of the walls, the roof and clock tower clad in aluminium panels. But for children and teachers, the most significant feature is that classrooms have exterior glass walls with doors opening out onto decking and a central courtyard.

Highland Council's newly-opened pound;7 million school has been created to make outdoor learning accessible and this morning, learning has escaped into the warm sunshine for some fun. Some of the P2s are lying on the deck, deep in concentration with Duplo bricks - nearby children are sitting in a circle listening to their teacher.

It's the end of the first week in their new school and this afternoon the children will be entertaining parents to celebrate their big move.

These children have come from more than 25 nurseries and primary schools across Inverness with the majority moving from nearby Inshes Primary. This is a young, growing community, three miles south of Inverness city centre, with new housing and plans for shops and amenities.

"Children living around here have been going to Inshes School for the past four years and Inshes was at bursting point, every conceivable space was being used. I think apart from anything else, the residents of Milton of Leys also wanted their own identity and their own school," says Mr Quigley, former cluster head of two small Highland schools, north of Inverness - Marybank and Strathgarve.

He started this job in January when the school was still a building site in the fields, visiting individual children to get to know them in their schools and nurseries and setting up the blog to let parents and children share the journey towards their first day.

He's chosen all the school furniture and equipment - ordering everything from cutlery for the staffroom to books for the school library. The school has wi-fi and an all-weather multi-use games area that is floodlit and available for community use.

There are more than 190 children in the primary school and more than 60 in the nursery department, with wraparound care available from breakfast at 8.10am and after school until 6pm. The school uses eight of the 11 classrooms and has capacity to accommodate more than 300 children. There are only four P7s in school this year - nearly all of the older children at Inshes Primary chose to finish their education there, rather than switch for their last year.

There are 30 staff, which includes nine primary teachers - three of whom volunteered to transfer along with 150 pupils who came here from Inshes Primary, a mile-and-a-half away. Another teacher transferred from a school with a drop in the roll and a further four teachers were appointed from nearly 100 applicants.

On Monday this week, the whole staff met for the first time at an in- service day, bonding with help from an ice-breaker version of speed dating.

The school's depute headteacher is Elspeth MacKenzie, formerly principal teacher at Crown Primary in Inverness. This morning, she is on the decking outside her classroom, where five-year-old P2 Heather Gordon rehearses the song for this afternoon's performance to parents. "We're singing a song called We have to be friends," says Heather. "I like it because it's a lovely school, with nice people."

Ms MacKenzie has also been making friends, after getting to know more about her colleagues' personal tastes on Monday. "We were having conversations with each other, asking things like, `Would you rather hot or cold? Sushi or haggis?' Just having conversations, getting people laughing. Ending, of course with `George Clooney or Ewan McGregor?'" she laughs.

Alas, the question is purely theoretical - this was speed dating without dates. And, since Mr Quigley's teaching staff is entirely female, there may have been some imbalance.

He may not have a view on George Clooney, but Mr Quigley is confident his new colleagues share his vision that this school will provide these children with a child-centred environment for innovative learning.

"My vision is that learning takes place wherever - out in the decking area, in the library, in the social area, out in the corridor - basically wherever learning is best achieved.

"I want teachers to be risk-takers in the sense of trying something out and, if it doesn't work, learning from their mistakes or learning from the part that didn't work. But having the confidence to say, `Let's try teaching this particular way and see if it works.'"

Everyone you meet in the school seems fired up with enthusiasm and thrilled to have a job here. There are no jaded curmudgeons lurking in the staffroom, like Grantley from Waterloo Road.

"It's an unreal experience and I feel very, very privileged to work in such an amazing school," says P45 teacher Lindsay Vass. "It's a dream school - everything that's to do with teaching and education - this school caters for it all," says Mrs Vass, who joins the staff from Crown Primary and has been teaching for four years.

"I am just so excited - I just love my job," says P3 teacher Donna MacBeath, embarking on her first position after a probationary year at Rosebank Primary in Nairn.

Like other staff, she was in over the summer holidays, preparing for the opening: "I cannot wait to get started - I'm over the moon," she says. "It's such a great opportunity to be in a school that is designed for Curriculum for Excellence as well. Look outside - the outdoor learning. That's something I want to develop," says Donna.

Now at the end of their first week, the children have had a chance to reflect on their new school. CfE is already kicking in - hands shoot up when you ask a question and they deliver well-considered responses like Apprentice finalists.

"I feel like I belong in this school and that it's going to be challenging but I am up for the challenges," says eight-year-old Clarke Hendry, from P45.

When they're asked what it's like here, children like Lottie Williams, nine, acknowledge this is a big change for them. "It's a bit weird, because it feels that I'm just all of a sudden separated from Inshes. I think it's very big and it's very fun."

They're also struggling to find their way around, says eight-year old Charlotte Murray. "It's been hard trying to get used to this place, because there's all sorts of places you need to go and you need to try and memorise the place. It's all sort of like a maze and then you have to walk around and it's a bit tricky to get used to it."

They're also missing friends: "It's been a bit tough, but it's also been a bit fun as well. Just staying away from my friends - because my friends have been in Inshes and it's hard to stay away from, so I am getting used to it," says Rachel Urquhart, eight.

But there are also some marvellous compensations, as eight-year old John Kelbie points out: "This week has been very fun - exciting and we've got our football pitch, which makes it very fun."

Very fun indeed - and already local football clubs are forming an orderly queue to book after-school coaching sessions on this state-of-the-art new pitch.

For Mr Quigley, finally the first week is over and the weekend is looming for the father of two (Brogan, six, and Carrich, three).

"We've got another one due. My wife's being induced on Tuesday - so it's all go," he smiles.

Blog on progress that bolstered a growing sense of community

Even before this new Highland school opened, the headteacher was able to gauge the mood of pupils and parents about the upcoming move.

On the school blog, children could vote on how they were feeling about the new school and then view the results: 34 per cent were excited, 25 per cent were over the moon, 20 per cent couldn't wait, 14 per cent were nervous, 5 per cent were terrified and 0 per cent were worried.

The blog has had more than 4,000 visitors and has proved an ideal tool for informing everyone about how the new building was progressing, and giving children and parents ownership of their new school from the outset.

"It's been used for voting for the school uniform, it's been used for putting even simple things like enrolment forms up, putting placement request forms onto the blog so that everything can be accessed," says headteacher Robert Quigley.

An ICT enthusiast who pioneered blogging at his last schools, Marybank and Strathgarve, Mr Quigley also encouraged other teachers to blog when he spoke at the Highland Learning Festival in Dingwall two years ago.

Since January, he's been building an online community while the school was still a hard-hat zone. "With such a disparate group of parents, because of the fact they are all coming from different schools, it gave them a chance to have that focal point to find out what was happening," he says.

Parents could leave comments and ask questions online, but they could also come along to open meetings to hear about the headteacher's vision for their children's education.

But the last open meeting for parents in June wasn't as well attended as expected.

"I asked some parents who didn't come along why," says Mr Quigley, "and their answer was `because you've given us the information - it's been clear, it's been there on the blog and you have communicated it with us.'"


Photography by Simon Price


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