Ticket to learn

25th November 2011 at 00:00
Course timetables online and bus passes in hand, senior pupils go the extra mile to access Highers and Advanced Highers

At first glance the Higher psychology class at St Margaret's Academy looks no different from any other as pupils discuss cults and hypotheses.

But looking around the room a kind of educational Noah's Ark emerges - two teenagers in the corner have purple ties, another pair sport red ones, while at a different desk a couple are in blue.

This class is one of 34 so-called travelling courses across West Lothian, accommodating pupils who cannot do their chosen subject in their own school, either because it is not offered or due to a timetable clash.

Here, a dozen pupils from three other West Lothian secondaries have joined seven from St Margaret's in Livingston to study Higher psychology.

Pupils journeying to neighbouring schools to do subjects which they cannot study at their own school is nothing new. Neither is shoving two or three pupils who want to study a minority subject at Higher or Advanced Higher level into the back of a lower class, where they tend to receive less attention.

Teaching tiny groups is unsustainable in the current economic climate, raising the risk of teenagers being told they simply cannot do certain subjects. But with growing demands under Curriculum for Excellence to offer a wider choice of subjects and courses amid ever-shrinking budgets, schools are under increasing pressure to meet pupils' aspirations.

The West Lothian Campus (WLC) is one authority's solution to the problem, formalising old ad-hoc practices to create sustainable collaboration between schools. St Margaret's headteacher and chair of the WLC working group, Jim Cameron proposed the campus after researching subject choice in 2008 and finding that no single subject was on offer in all 11 schools at Advanced Higher level, and only seven Highers were offered across the board.

Since then, West Lothian secondaries have been hit with average spending cuts of pound;300,000 between 2010 and 2013 - the equivalent of losing seven teachers.

Mr Cameron says: "This was not designed to save money but each school has savings to make and it is helping. It has to be best value because the alternative is that these courses will not be offered in school."

The key difference between past practice and the campus model, apart from the sheer numbers involved, is the development of a new e-prospectus and mini-clearing system enabling pupils and teachers to see which courses are running where, check availability and apply at the click of a button.

It was created by Grace Burns, a principal teacher for curriculum, seconded to help implement the scheme.

"In the past, if you had a fifth or sixth-year pupil who wanted to study a subject that was full, or not offered, you would pick up the phone and ask another school if they had a spare place," she says.

"With the e-prospectus, pupils and teachers can see everything every school is offering in the travelling column (the section of the timetable for pupils journeying to different schools)."

When the WLC started in June this year, the number of pupils travelling between schools increased from 66 to 162. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon they study their choice from 16 Highers, eight Advanced Highers and 10 Intermediate 2 courses.

Psychology is the most popular Higher, with 25 pupils travelling to three schools to join classes.

At St Margaret's, Emily Binnie and Lucy Moffat are both pupils from Bathgate Academy, which doesn't offer the course.

Lucy, 17, says: "We had a few issues when we first came to the school. A few of the younger pupils shouted `Go home!', but we haven't had any problems with anyone in our class."

Emily, 17, is also happy but describes some initial confusion, adding: "When we were picking our subjects, one teacher told me the course wasn't running, then they said it was. It's been fun and quite friendly."

Next door in a travelling Advanced Higher French class, pupils are engaged in lively debate.

Andrew Mikkelsen, 17, the only pupil from West Calder High, says: "Everyone gets on really well. I was already friends with some of the other pupils here, but a few people didn't know anyone.

"I get a minibus here now but at first I got the school bus, which was obviously quite scary. There were also a few issues with bus passes but now it's fine.

"I decided to do the course after my guidance teacher mentioned the e- prospectus and I went off and looked at it. It's easy to get around."

Over the previous few years, only three pupils had enrolled in Advanced Higher French at St Margaret's, including one from another school.

Modern languages teacher Marie Moore says: "Now we have nine, so we are able to have this level of discussion, which adds a new dimension to the class. We are a subject that is under threat. Without this there would have been only three pupils again."

The system means extra hours for teachers, who often help outside pupils keep up via email between classes. Ms Moore believes the effort is worth it.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the EIS union and a former Latin teacher, acknowledges that while more work is more welcome than none, nevertheless the scheme threatens job security for some.

"It will have a mixed impact on employment, I think. You might see it as a lifeline to create a viable teaching cohort which you would not have in your own school, but on the other hand it would mean that schools can perhaps get away with one Latin teacher instead of perhaps three or four. So economically it may be regarded as increasing productivity, as you will get more pupils per teacher employed."

The e-prospectus also includes vocational courses at West Lothian College. While more pupils are travelling between schools, numbers travelling to college have dropped by 32 per cent to 111 as budget cuts in FE hit courses.

Early Education and Childcare Skills for Work 2 is now being run at Broxburn Academy, which has doubled the original number of places to 40 after being swamped with more than 90 applications. Without the e-clearing system, they would not have known demand was so high.

Head Peter Reid says: "It has been successful. It cost us pound;3,000 to have the course validated for the first year by the SQA but the authority has now picked up that cost."

The council is also offering every secondary the same funding for the next three years to cover accreditation costs for their ambition of providing two more vocational courses each.

There is wide variation between schools in the numbers of pupils received and sent. Broxburn and St Margaret's both host nearly 40 pupils each and send 10 or fewer.

West Calder High hosts two, sends 37 and offers just one course compared to six at St Margaret's and six at Broxburn. The West Calder High course is Advanced Higher English, and without it one St Margaret's pupil would have been unable to study the subject.

Where provision is unbalanced, the council provides funding to cover extra costs, such as resources.

Elsewhere Dumfries and Galloway is exploring a more controversial solution, merging the senior phase of four secondaries with falling rolls into a single campus, while S1-3 pupils from the four schools would attend classes at a separate "junior" campus.

Education director Colin Grant says reaction has been broadly favourable so far, but acknowledges a range of concerns.

Stressing that it is far from a "done deal", he says: "It's a very sensitive and radical change. There are a lot of agencies and groups who are very positive about it but there are understandably also reservations around the detail because it is such a change."

Teachers have a fear of being "pigeon-holed" by only working with 16 to 18-year-olds, for example. However, Mr Grant believes that such specialisation could enhance teachers' prospects.

Meanwhile, the overriding concern remains to improve the future for pupils.


96 - Number of extra pupils travelling between West Lothian secondary schools to study under the new campus model.

34 - Courses offered to pupils travelling between West Lothian secondary schools, from Advanced Higher English to Creative Cakes (Intermediate 2).

pound;300,000 - Average cut each West Lothian secondary school must make between 2010-13.


It's not quite planes, trains and automobiles.

But new "campus" schemes sending pupils to different schools so that they can study their subject of choice have tended to result in some complex, costly and chaotic transport arrangements.

Taxis, school buses, minibuses and public buses are all used by senior pupils travelling between school and home.

Earlier this year, however, schools in West Lothian introduced the use of specially programmed bus passes which allow pupils to travel free on First buses to attend classes in neighbouring schools.

There were a few glitches when the campus scheme was launched in June, but things run smoothly now.

Jim Cameron, head at St Margaret's Academy in Livingston and chair of the West Lothian Campus working group, admits: "We had a lot of taxi operators and there were issues with taxis being late or going to the wrong place, that kind of thing. We're using minibuses now (to go from base schools to host schools), which is much more robust."

The 11 West Lothian secondaries agreed to pool 80 per cent of their 16+ travel budget to fund the cost of pupils travelling under the campus scheme. It is currently costing pound;3,630 per week, including pound;1,930 on taxis and pound;1,083 on minibuses. The remaining pound;617 per week spent on the First programmed bus passes is clearly far cheaper.

However, it has emerged that many pupils are not using the passes because they would rather walk or get a lift from their parents than rush for an early bus or wait for a later one.

Now a new initiative is being explored - expanding the national Young Scot discount card for 11 to 26-year-olds to provide free transport on all public buses for pupils when they travel to study in other schools.

Mr Cameron says: "It will be really positive because it means that the local authority will only be charged for journeys which are actually made."


Alex Wardrop (pictured) wanted to take Advanced Higher French because she hopes to become a languages teacher.

But although she did well in Higher French at Whitburn Academy, she couldn't go on to study the language at Advanced Higher, because her school doesn't offer it.

St Margaret's Academy in Livingston does, however, and thanks to the new shared learning system in West Lothian, Alex has been attending classes in Advanced Higher French at the neighbouring school since June.

The 16-year-old says: "To start with, I was quite nervous because I was going by myself, but I also thought it would be good to be with other people who were interested in languages too.

"I had a few (unfriendly) comments (initially from pupils at St Margaret's) at first but I just ignored them and the class I am in is really friendly. It's good to have different teachers and different styles of learning.

"I had not really thought about doing Advanced Higher French until we were picking our subjects and it became an option when I got my exam results back. My school at the moment doesn't even do Higher French any more, because it is mainly concentrating on German now. So being able to go to a different school has really helped me.

"I really enjoy the course and want to study languages at university and become a languages teacher."

Alex travels from Whitburn Academy to St Margaret's by taxi every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, sharing the cab with a couple of other pupils who are dropped at Deans Community High for other courses.

She has a programmed bus pass to go home from Livingston to Whitburn by public bus, but her father usually gives her a lift instead, as the times are not convenient.

"I was always running for the first bus or waiting around for the later one," she says.

She does miss "one or two" periods which St Margaret's pupils attend, but uses homework or study periods to catch up, which "works OK".

Summing up her view of the West Lothian Campus shared classes system, she says: "I would recommend it to see a whole different type of teaching, meet new people and to be able to do the subjects which might have been limited to you."


In common with schools across Scotland, Kincorth Academy in Aberdeen cannot accommodate every pupil's subject choice.

So when three boys (Stuart Whitehead, Grant Ross and James Milne) recently asked to do Advanced Higher physics, teachers followed the traditional but informal route of arranging for them to study their chosen course elsewhere, in this case at Aberdeen Grammar.

As a result, one pupil went on to study medicine while another was accepted at Cambridge University. Their success was one of the main inspirations for Aberdeen City Council's new scheme to give every pupil in the city the widest possible choice of subjects and courses.

David Leng, council head of schools and education establishments, says: "We were doing background research into this and had asked for examples of successful pupils working with other schools. When we heard about these pupils, we thought, `If it can work for three boys in that school, why can't it work across the city?'"

The council is now introducing a new approach, dubbed the Aberdeen City Campus, replacing the ad-hoc arrangements which helped the Kincorth pupils with a dedicated, citywide partnership.

Every secondary in Aberdeen has set aside four afternoons a week for so- called "travelling" classes for pupils whose Advanced Higher choices cannot be met by their own school.

Since August, Aberdeen Grammar and Harlaw Academy have hosted 15 Advanced Higher courses - chosen from a list of subjects in greatest demand - for around 300 pupils from other city secondaries.

Like the West Lothian Campus, which has been something of a role model, Aberdeen is working closely with colleges to increase pupils' vocational course choices, too. But unlike West Lothian, Aberdeen wants different educational establishments to be beacons.

Mr Leng says: "We want to create centres of excellence across the city, for example in engineering, in hairdressing and in childcare."

An audit is under way to identify which vocational courses should be included under the travelling options next February, when the next cohort of pupils choose their subjects.

Physically moving pupils around the city inevitably has implications in terms of costs and time, and Mr Leng admits "we have no extra money to throw at this".

Instead, the council hopes the third stage of its campus initiative will help reduce costs and practical difficulties.

The use of virtual learning is already forging links between pupils in Aberdeen, Shetland and around the world who are using technology for an online baccalaureate in science.

Thirty pupils - five from Anderson High in Lerwick and 25 from Bridge of Don and Oldmachar academies in Aberdeen - are studying the course together.

The virtual learning system was already running in Shetland but was under threat, due to funding issues.

Sharing resources has made virtual learning cheaper for Aberdeen - which now funds 40 per cent of the scheme - and saved jobs in Shetland.

Ultimately, Aberdeen wants every pupil to be guaranteed the chance to study their choices in the city - in their own school, in a combination of school and college, or through virtual learning.

Mr Leng says: "My colleagues laugh and say I sound like a Martini ad when I say this, but it's about providing anytime, anywhere learning."

Original headline: New school ties: the course-sharing model

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