They're the 20 schools getting extra money because they are judged capable of changing pupils' lives. Douglas Blane finds out how the three-year Schools of Ambition programme is starting to shape up
On paper it is hard to see what the 20 Schools of Ambition scattered around Scotland have in common. They are all non-selective and almost all are secondary schools, but there the resemblances seem to end.
A large school in the Highlands works with local business to find real employment for restless youngsters. A small island school creates an innovative timetable and a personalised curriculum. Way up north, technology connects our most remote secondary to a global network of learners. In the city, disaffected youngsters learn to play and perform.
Enterprise, drama, music, languages, technology, health, sport, vocational and social skills - the list of areas being funded by the Executive "to instil belief and ambition in pupils, extend their opportunities and transform their life chances", as the website explains the scheme - is almost as long as the list of schools. But, while the proposals display a bewildering variety of visions, the people pulling them together share many obvious qualities.
They are passionate.
At Barrhead High, whose catchment area belies the image of East Renfrewshire's leafy suburbs, Morag Toundrow, the headteacher, admits that her pupils now count how often she mentions "school of ambition".
"The core of what we're doing is raising pupil confidence," she says. "Arts and creativity will play a big part. We're going to have a drama teacher, a recording studio, a residential study opportunity for first years, which they'll follow up with a flexible curriculum back at school.
"It's a journey that is all about sensible risk-taking. People have to feel in control of their lives to be healthy - which means they need confidence from an early age. We aim to generate that confidence. So when they're old enough to make choices, they feel in control and are not trapped as their parents might have been."
They are good communicators.
At Blairgowrie High, a rural school whose pupils often leave Perth and Kinross as soon as they can, headteacher John Fyffe has been talking to people in the local community.
"We want to make the curriculum fit the child. So we've been talking to farmers, foresters, golf courses, equine centres, fish farms. We now have kids going out every week, working on the newly launched Scottish Progression Award in rural skills. Schemes come and go but kids need a qualification.
"We are talking to the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) about hospitality courses. There are huge areas of Scotland, including around here, where tourism is the mainstay of the local economy.
"We are talking to colleges in Perth, Dundee and Edinburgh about outreach.
"Sending my pupils on vocational courses does not build capacity in my school. I want to see them doing a mix of Standard grades, National Qualifications and Scottish Progression Awards - all within the school. I have a pound;20 million facility here, which is used for just 30 hours a week. That's just crazy."
They are planners.
"We've been thinking for a while about a curriculum to suit more of our kids," says Dr Elizabeth Cunningham, headteacher at Islay High in Argyll and Bute. "We have a fair number with additional support needs. We wanted more vocational courses, and most of our pupils don't need two years for Standard grade, followed by a two-term dash to Higher, for which they're totally unprepared.
"We considered bringing Standard grade into S2, but decided lack of maturity could be a problem. Instead we're going to combine S3 to S6, with different levels from Access to Higher and every course lasting just one year.
"These will include vocational courses, such as hairdressing and beauty, for which we'll have onsite facilities, and which offer SQA qualifications in skills for work. Vocational courses must be accredited."
And, of course, they are ambitious.
"We have built up links with schools around the world," says Stewart Hay, depute head of Anderson High in Shetland. "We now have a series of international learning projects which use modern technology and involve the whole school. We call it 'Living locally, learning globally.'
"All first and second-year pupils will work with international partners on 'sharing perspectives', using laptops and software that let them collaborate. Standard grade biology classes are filming practical demonstrations for colleagues in South Africa who never get experiments at school.
"Children with additional support needs are sharing video lessons with kids in Sweden, and are preparing to visit them. Students in schools around Britain are working on digital images of their communities. We have an international enterprise project with a local business which is looking to expand abroad.
"Finally, we are collaborating on a virtual filmed drama, which will be shown in the Peace Palace, Hiroshima this July."
All 20 schools of ambition will receive up to pound;100,000 a year for three years. The Executive anticipates "further opportunities for schools to come onto the programme later". Twenty-two other schools, initially unsuccessful, have received feedback on their proposals to help develop them, although "no decision has been made on a date for submitting bids for a second tranche," according to an Executive spokesperson.
Many of the schools of ambition are at the planning stage or just beyond, with senior management still playing a central role. Where teachers and pupils are already involved, enthusiasm runs high.
"We've been filming biology lessons for pupils in a school in Cape Town,"
says Calum Leask, a third-year pupil at Anderson High. "We did a video conference with them and learned all about their school. We were quite shocked to learn they have to bring their own equipment - such as beakers - into school."
Getting to be teachers for a time was a bit daunting at first, he says, but worked really well in the end. "We had different groups to do the filming and photography, carry out the experiments, and put it all on to PowerPoint (the Microsoft presentation program).
"Teaching other people made it much easier to learn, and trying to pass your knowledge on was fun. We enjoyed it and that spurred us on to do well."
TWENTY SCHOOLS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The schools of ambition will receive up to pound;100,000 a year for three years to implement proposals that "instil belief and ambition in pupils, extend their opportunities and transform their life chances". While not specialist schools, many are "developing an area of curricular excellence as a way of delivering their transformational plans", says a Scottish Executive spokesperson.
The schools are: Anderson High, Shetland - ICT and global learning; Arbroath Academy, Angus - enterprise and environment; Barrhead High, East Renfrewshire - arts and creativity; Blairgowrie High, Perth and Kinross - work-based vocational learning; St Ninian's High, East Dunbartonshire - modern languages.
Islay High, Argyll and Bute - vocational learning and personalised curriculum; Kirkland High School and Community College, Fife - drama and performing arts; Brae High, Falkirk - ICT and enterprise; Braeview Academy, Dundee - performing and visual arts; Burnhouse School, West Lothian - enterprise and personalised curriculum.Cardinal Newman High, North Lanarkshire - work-based vocational learning; Castlemilk St Margaret Mary's Secondary, Glasgow - curricular choice and personal pathways; Doon Academy Learning Partnership, East Ayrshire - health promotion and ICT; Hawick High, Scottish Borders - enterprise and creativity; Inverness High, Highland - enterprise and healthy living.Newbattle Community High, Midlothian - arts and creativity; Our Lady's and St Patrick's High, West Dunbartonshire - arts and creativity; St Modan's High, Stirling - arts and sport; St Paul's High, Glasgow - employability and pupil engagement; Wallace Hall Academy, Dumfries and Galloway - enterprise and flexible curriculum