Northfield Academy has earned a reputation as a beacon of socially inclusive, community-based secondary education. David Henderson examines how, while Raymond Ross investigates some of its more innovative project work
The school of the future could be Northfield Academy. The 1,100-pupil inner-city comprehensive is not an education action plan secondary or a new community school: it is just an ordinary school trying to travel the extra mile for its pupils and community.
It established its reputation nationally by becoming the first Scottish secondary to pilot Integrated Learning Systems, the interactive basic skills programs in mathematics and English for S1 and S2 pupils that have been shown to ratchet up standards among disadvantaged groups. Other secondaries around the country have since adopted the Successmaker programs that have been tested and fully researched at Northfield Academy.
Now headteacher Tom Robertson is moving on to a new agenda of social inclusion, a common enough target these days when ministers and councillors rarely miss an opportunity to refer to the new educational mantra. Innovation and social inclusion are not far removed from the head's thoughts as he aims to improve the service to his local community.
Just as the city council is moving to its devolved, area-based structure, so the academy might move towards more integrated, collaborative work with other council services, tackling the educational exclusion still experienced by young people and adults and the associated family difficulties. If it sounds like a new community school approach, it probably is.
"If we have difficulties with youngsters, we end up working with the educational psychology department and children's reporters," says Mr Robertson. "Social workers work through the same problem as we do with the youngster and, at joint meetings, we have agencies sitting there offering conflicting answers. Why is that? What does it say to the parents? What does it say to the kids? And what's the right answer? The right answer is to get together beforehand and stop this nonsense of separate approaches."
His vision is of a multi-agency, area-based team for Northfield, building out from the academy. "The pattern of thinking about how the service provided here links with other services in the community needs to change," according to the head.
"If you're working in parallel and never quite meeting there is going to be a fair level of misunderstanding about each other's functions and where demarcation lines are. It has to become a people-focused service. It has to say: 'There's a family here with a problem. How can we put a service package together for that family?'," Mr Robertson says.
In other words, parents should not be shunted from one department to another and should have a co-ordinated service approach to their problems.
On a stricter educational front, he supports the aim of establishing Northfield as a "learning community", linking schools with community education, further and higher education and maximising opportunities for young people and adults.
It is not so long since a minibus of sixth-year pupils travelled down to Aberdeen University, a mere mile or two away. It drew up outside and one pupil vanished, such was his fear of even entering university premises.
These are the barriers to learning that Mr Robertson wants to overcome by opening up what he emphasises are expensively-built school premises for adult and community use. He also wants to challenge conventional views of education, many of them negative.
"The college wants to get involved in outreach programmes, the universities want to get involved in outreach programmes and we want to promote learning in this community. We have to begin to think about joined-up working," he says.
A Northfield community learning partnership is being created to turn the vision into practice. Schools' statutory responsibilities would continue but more resources would be given to wider learning. "If we want to improve and be a better part of this community, we have to find the means of involving the community in the school. That means taking a different view of what the school offers.
"When I talked to Primary 7 parents about facilities, a buzz went around when I said we were converting part of the school into a hair and beauty therapy area. A number of people also wanted access to the sports and gym facilities."
You arrive at a quite different picture of the traditional secondary when you piece together the changing curriculum, geared more towards the interests of Northfield pupils, the wider learning in the community and the broader social inclusion agenda. Mr Robertson acknowledges it is only a vision, even if the first strands are in place.