There's a new spring in the step of pupils and staff at Newbattle High in Midlothian. Miranda Fettes investigates how they achieve their Peak Performance
THE SIGN outside proudly proclaims: "Your Newbattle Community High School.
Our School of Ambition." Housing, parkland and fields stretch out beyond the Midlothian school, which serves the former mining villages of Mayfield, Easthouses, Newtongrange and Gorebridge.
"Schools of Ambition isn't way out there; it's very much the way we view our school," says Colin Taylor, the headteacher. "We are about ensuring every young person reaches their potential."
While league tables are not his favourite topic, Mr Taylor is resolute in his conviction that educating young people and preparing them for life is about a lot more than academic attainment. New-battle, with 900 pupils, has had School of Ambition status for only 18 months, but already much has been achieved. The next 18 months will see it develop further.
Funding of pound;100,000 a year has let the school enhance the leadership potential of staff and pupils. Then there is Peak Performance. The title for this initiative was chosen to embody what the school is trying to achieve, says Mr Taylor. "It's about raising the bar in these areas."
Every Thursday afternoon, all second, fifth and sixth years have a Peak Performance lesson. Pupils can choose from art and design, music, drama, media studies, business education, home economics, technical and PE. Along the corridors, the work produced is evident. Two plasma screens celebrate pupils' success; noticeboards and cabinets exhibit their work.
The S5 and S6 pupils take on a leadership role to support teachers and S2 pupils, with the aim of boosting pupil "empowerment" and developing excellence through the arts or PE. The senior pupils were chosen for their greater maturity. S2s were selected rather than S1s because they needed a certain skill level, plus it fitted well with the aim to develop choice in the S3 curriculum.
Peak Performance has generated several big events over the year: an X Factor singing competition, a Christmas show, a musical, Back to the 80s, and an exhibition of pupils' work called the 1000x1000 Exhibition. Pupils have taken normally adult roles in all of these: making props, scenery and costumes, selling tickets and posters, handling marketing, budgeting and stage design. The media studies group produced short animated films that were shown at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh.
"Understanding that their work is going out to the public has made pupils try harder to produce their best," says John Wilson, depute head and Schools of Ambition co-ordinator. This all fits with one of Newbattle's challenges: "to raise self-esteem, attainment and aspirations amongst a significant number of pupils". Another is to improve their levels of employment and their chances of further and higher education.
With pupils feeling greater self-worth and more involved in their school - the fun bits as well as the academic - Peak Performance is intended to carry forward to their studies. S2 pupils moving into S3 can build on their Peak Performance work by specialising in those subject areas and taking SQA Intermediate 1 and 2 awards, then moving on to Higher and Advanced Higher if they want.
"We are anticipating, as youngsters feel more confident about themselves and participate more in wider arts and sports, it will enhance their attainment across the curriculum," says Mr Wilson.
The sense of pride at Newbattle is already clear: in the sixth form, twice as many applied to be senior prefects compared with last year.
"Our largest ever number of fifth years are coming back next year," says Mr Wilson. "We've gone from a school with 12 sixth years six or seven years ago (when he took over as head) to 60 this year and more next year (about 87 out of 120)."
For pupils moving on, the school has been working with Careers Scotland. A guidance team is looking at anyone at risk of falling into the Neet (not in employment, education or training) category. In August, Christmas leavers will start on a work preparation programme.
Peak Performance has been very successful at developing leadership skills in senior pupils, Mr Wilson says. The school has retrospectively given 60 of them an SQA Intermediate Award in enterprise in education - a by-product of their leadership work.
"It is not something we had planned to offer this year, but it became clear that a fair number of fifth and sixth years have taken on leadership roles.
Teenagers often get a bad press, but seeing them organising and supporting younger pupils is proof that they can clearly be responsible citizens when given the opportunity."
Another example of the school's commitment to developing leadership skills in pupils is its investment in Columba 1400. Thirteen young people and four staff went to Skye to complete its ambassadors' leadership academy last September. The intensive six-day course focused on six core values: awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service. They took part in activities aimed at improving self-esteem, teamwork and leadership. The pupils have since organised an inter-house competition for S1, as well as revamping the student council and adopting a more prominent role at school, influencing change by passing on recommendations to senior staff.
Newbattle now plans to develop its own set of core values, in consultation with pupils and staff. It is all part of a drive to empower pupils - boosting pupil involvement and getting them to feel good about the school.
Peter Gray, principal teacher of art and the Peak Performance co-ordinator, says he has noticed a big difference in the past 18 months: "The pace of what we're doing has quickened. We're trying to develop leadership in everything we do. What is resulting is a really marked improvement in co-operation, teamwork and fast thinking."
More teachers want to work there too, he says. Every probationer placed at Newbattle wanted to apply for a permanent post, and 35 people recently applied for one PE teaching post.
"In the past this has been known as a challenging school. Now people are taking notice and seeing Newbattle as an example."
Mr Wilson, the depute, agrees: "We have pockets of significant deprivation in our catchment. When we have this level of enthusiasm in our school, we move well beyond that."
The school's motto is "Challenge". While much has been overcome and achieved, the challenge to raise attainment further still remains.
An inspectors' report in 2001 awarded Newbattle 10 very goods and nine goods, but pointed out various weaknesses and demanded "concerted action to raise attainment". The verdict in 2003 was: "Overall, the school and the education authority had made good progress in addressing the main points for action... There were signs that pupils' attainment was improving".
Results at 5-14 and Standard grade have risen markedly. "Last year's Standard grade results were the best in the history of the school," says Mr Taylor: 19 per cent of S4 pupils gained five Credit passes or above - a significant achievement considering the catchment. In 5-14 tests, those gaining level E or above in reading has risen from 6 to 43 per cent (2005-06), and in maths from 18 to 57 per cent. Pupils gaining Advanced Highers are now beginning to put Newbattle "on the map", says Mr Taylor.
The conditions for further improvement - motivated teachers and pupils, greater confidence and drive, and staff and pupils who are proud to be part of Newbattle Community High - have been created.
"Being a School of Ambition is something more than pound;100,000 a year for three years," says Mr Taylor. "We have used it to cement a particular way of thinking that we've had for a number of years. We have tried to build on the momentum that has already gathered. There's been a journey of constant improvement.
"We are proud to say we're Newbattle Community High School, we're a school of am-bition and our pupils can achieve great things."
RAISING THE BAR IN THREE SPORTS
Newbattle Community High launched three sports academies - football, basketball and dance - in June last year as part of Peak Performance. More than 150 pupils are involved, including 14 S5 junior sports leaders who are working towards accreditation from the UK Sports Leaders Award, a coaching qualification.
The three academies are not a soft option. The footballers have recently won the Midlothian Award for Outstanding Contribution to Sport. Four academy pupils have been interviewed for PE teaching places at Moray House.
Bob Foley, the principal teacher of PE, is evangelical. "It has been a tremendous success," he says of Peak Performance and the Schools of Ambition work. "The biggest thing for me is that staff feel it's their own department - they've created something.
"In the past, it was an area of deprivation. We've raised the bar for the children. It's exciting. The world's a big place. They've achieved so much.
The kids are more awake, more alive, more excited, and when they're switched on, they're learning."
And this buzz is not confined to the pupils. "Staff seem alive and awake and challenged," he says.
Only one year group - S1 - will not be involved in the sports academies, as many second year pupils who chose it for their Peak Performance period are continuing with it in S3 for their Intermediate 1 practical performance award. They will have three periods a week of their chosen sport next session and in S4.
PE teacher Andrew Wilson says his junior sports leaders have been "fantastic". "They're stepping up from being led to being leaders". The pupils worked with children from Mayfield Primary, coaching them in football and basketball.
"Employers," he says, "want organised, motivated, enthusiastic people who are willing to give up their time." The sports academies and Peak Performance departments, he believes, will stand them in good stead for entering the workplace.