Three cheers for this year's star performers

5th October 2007 at 01:00
The 2007 SQA awards ceremony for education and lifelong learning was a sparkling affair. This week, Douglas Blane reports on the schools winners

it is a night of stars and stories. As each new name is drawn from the sealed envelopes at the Scottish Qualifications Authority's annual awards, white light stars on the blue backwall spring to life and dance around the real stars wending their way among tables of glittering guests towards the floodlit stage.

The SQA Star Awards at the Radisson Hotel in Glasgow start formally, but whoops and cheers soon accompany each announcement. The new evening slot has added an excitement to the event, with the pulsating energy of the young dancers and musicians in the early entertainment transmitting itself to the audience.

Betty Short can hardly contain her delight as she is named Candidate of the Year (training organisation) and steps up to the stage. From a low period in her life, Betty began as a kitchen assistant with MI Technologies and worked her way up, through determination and SQA qualifications, to the position of chef, making "a huge impact on staff and residents" at Cleveden Lodge Nursing Home.

Schoolboy William Duff was diagnosed, in his first year at Tain Royal Academy, with Gilbert's Syndrome, a liver condition that is normally not hazardous to health. But serious complications left him in a wheelchair and having to be educated at home with the help of teachers and family. Despite being able to study for only a short time each day, William gained excellent Highers this year and is headed for university to study accountancy.

Buyun Zhao from the High School of Dundee followed five A grades at Higher with a further five at Advanced Higher, and is bound for Cambridge to study science. Jenny Ferguson gained a remarkable six Band 1 passes at Higher, a first for Udding- ston Grammar, and is embarked on a career in medicine. Joanne Campbell is a keen buddy and mentor to younger pupils with problems at Coltness High in Wishaw, and plans in time to become a teacher.

But individual stars are just part of the story of the SQA awards. Centres are also celebrated, with separate awards for lifelong learning, international, innovation and partnership won this year by an unusual collaboration between two Edinburgh schools, one private for the daughters of the privileged, the other comprehensive and under threat of closure by the council.

Wester Hailes Education Centre is a small school with a large free meal entitlement, located less than four miles from St George's School for Girls. It is a short step to a different world in which typical school fees re- semble average Wester Hailes annual earnings.

But these schools with disparate cultures and pupil expectations have been collaborating for the past year to deliver Intermediate 1 early education and childcare.

"We believe strongly in the new Skills for Work courses," says Judith McClure, St George's headteacher. "It's important that vocational education has parity of esteem with academic education."

St George's involvement in the Skills for Work pilot led to a phone call from Wester Hailes headteacher Alex Wood. "It was his idea that we develop a mutually supportive partnership that is the key. Both schools benefit."

Pooled resources are part of this, says Zoe Sharp, principal teacher of home economics at Wester Hailes. "We share our DVDs and virtual babies, as well as The Bump [which students strap on to simulate pregnancy]. We also have a drug- affected demonstrator baby that is used in both schools."

Planning materials, course evaluations and employability information developed at Wester Hailes, and recognised by SQA as examples of good practice, are also shared with St George's.

But the greatest benefit to both schools is less tangible, more significant and longer-lasting than shared resources, says Liz Stewart, head of early years at St George's. "In general, girls at the two schools come from very different backgrounds and will have preconceived ideas about each other. This course helps break down those barriers by bringing the girls together."

Opportunities for mixing include tours of each school and student placements in the Wester Hailes creche or the St George's nursery. Last year there was also a host of informal shared activities, such as baby sing and sign sessions, Easter egg hunts, Christmas parties, nativity plays, social events and parents' evenings.

"Our girls were terribly taken with the young mums' unit at Wester Hailes," says Ms Stewart. "They were pleased to see that support was there for girls ho got pregnant to stay on at school. And the real babies are a wonder-ful resource for learning. Virtual babies are good, but they don't have the same impact on girls as real babies."

For the future, the two teachers collaborating on delivery of the Intermediate 1 course at Wester Hailes would, like all teachers, welcome more time to work together.

"It would also be nice to get more staff involved, although it is sustainable at the moment," says Ms Sharp. "Our collaboration is doing such a lot for our pupils. It is showing them there aren't as many differences as they thought between girls at the schools. It is building their confidence to get out there, where before they might not have liked to wander far from the security of their own area.

"Two of last year's WHEC students are studying Intermediate 2 at St George's and one has gone on to do the course at college."

Ms McClure believes more such partnerships would benefit teachers and pupils in Scotland's schools. "They have to be collaborative and mutually supportive, with schools that really want to work together. Teachers in both schools learn how their teaching skills can work in different environments, while the kids see people their own age in totally different circumstances and learn that they can relate to each other.

"As far as the course is concerned, everybody should do early education and childcare. It is something that brings all of us together."

Next week: SQA Star Awards for further education and lifelong learning

SQA Star Award for

Academic Excellence

Pierrick Athukorala

George Watson's College


Asked if he recognises the judges' description of him as a "self-effacing young man who quietly gets on with the job", Pierrick hesitates before replying that he would probably choose different words "hard-working, focused, determined to achieve my objectives".

Last year, those objectives included doing well in his exams which he certainly achieved with a little to spare, gaining seven A grade passes at Band 1 while still just 16.

Qualifications such as these open many doors, and university options that Pierrick considered before settling on his final choice of engineering, included economics and medicine. "I did work experience in a hospital last year and decided it wasn't my thing. I think you need to have a passion for medicine. My strength is probably maths, and from engineering there are so many things you can go into."

Being used to the rewards that come from hard work and organisation and clearly also ability Pierrick admits that he does wonder sometimes how he would handle a setback. "You don't really know. But I hope I'd cope well, look at all the issues and try to resolve them."

Beyond his studies, Pierrick plays guitar, piano and competitive tennis and was finance director of a school enterprise set up to market eco-friendly bags. "I think everybody should be interested in the environment. It is vital that governments do more to reduce emissions. But all of us can make small changes in our lives that will help."

SQA Star Award for

Candidate of the Year

Mhairi McNeill

St Ninian's High

East Renfrewshire

Clearly delighted to be taking part in the evening's events, Mhairi gives the distinct impression that chatty, smiling and animated is how she is all the time, not just when winning awards.

"I love my school, which has been really good to me. So being head girl this year was a chance to put something back."

Planning and running social events and charity campaigns, acting as a language tutor and mentor to younger students, and voluntary work at a local residential home all keep Mhairi busy beyond her sixth-year studies. It sounds hectic and hard to organise, but fifth-year was much more so, she says.

"I was doing a lot of work with the PACE theatre school while studying for six Highers and editing the school newspaper. I would sometimes get to bed at three in the morning which was ridiculous.

"I loved everything I was doing, but I had to learn there's a limit to what you can do. I did manage to balance it all in the end, though."

Awards for writing and journalism and six A grade passes at Higher, in subjects ranging from modern languages to maths and science, testify to that, while a visit to Lourdes helped Mhairi finally decide on her direction after school.

"I have always loved languages and science and couldn't decide between them for a career. But Lourdes made me realise I wanted to go into a caring profession. I have decided that I'm going to study medicine. I want to be able to wake up in 10 years' time knowing I can make a difference to people's lives."

School winners


Academic excellence: Pierrick Athukorala, George Watson's College, Edinburgh

Highly commended: Jenny Ferguson, Uddingston Grammar, South Lanarkshire. Buyun Zhao, High School of Dundee

SQA champion highly commended: Marjorie Ruddick, Alford Academy, Aberdeenshire

Candidate of the year: Mhairi McNeill, St Ninian's High, East Renfrewshire

Highly commended: Joanne Campbell, Coltness High, North Lanarkshire. William Duff, Tain Royal Academy, Highland Centres

Partnership: Wester Hailes Education Centre and St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh

Highly commended: Aberdeen College and St Machar Parent Support Project

Innovation highly commended: Cardinal Newman High, North Lanarkshire

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