The principal of a vocational college started by one of Scotland’s richest men has hit out at schools for not going the extra mile to help teens who have been turned off education.
Iain White used his address at the first Newlands Junior College (NJC) graduation ceremony to claim that it performs better than any school in Scotland and to criticise what he sees as an overly uniform approach to education in the state sector. He also criticised some teachers in mainstream schools for saying “That’s no ma job” when asked to do extra work to help their pupils succeed.
But Mr White’s description of his college’s success as “staggering” met with a muted response from the EIS. Scotland’s biggest teaching union has declared its opposition to the college receiving public funding over concerns about the “knock-on effects” it may have had on other schools.
NJC opened in Glasgow in November 2014 and is the brainchild of businessman Jim McColl, who felt that around one in five young people were not suited to mainstream schools.
Last week, 19 teenagers became the first graduates of the college, which takes S3 pupils from schools where they have been struggling and guarantees an apprenticeship or place in a further education college after two years. Four others from the original cohort of 23 had previously returned to their old schools.
The level of success through NJC’s small, informal classes has been high, said Mr White, with all students gaining at least a basic national qualification in five core areas (English, IT, maths, physics and laboratory science skills).
During a speech at the ceremony in Hampden, Scotland’s national football stadium, he said this “100 per cent” success rate meant “we’re the best performers in Scotland”. He also highlighted an 88 per cent attendance rate (compared with 92 per cent in secondary schools) and three students who outstripped expectations by taking Higher English.
Changing the approach
“We’ve been able to do it because at last somebody in Scotland recognised that it was not appropriate to have every secondary school in the country looking the same and doing the same sort of thing,” said Mr White. Secondary schools “work great for the majority”, he said, “but for some they don’t, and we have proved that by changing the approach.”
He said that a phrase “resounding in Scottish schools is, ‘That’s no ma job’ ”, and another was “My contract says that I’ve clocked the number of minutes this week that I can be made to teach”. Mr White added: “These sort of things are never said [in NJC] because folk just do what needs to be done.”
NJC was kick-started in 2014 with funding from private contributors, Glasgow City Council (£500,000 over five years) and the Scottish government (£500,000 towards start-up costs). Current annual running costs are around £800,000, or around £13,000 for each of its 60 students – more than twice that for a pupil at a local state secondary.
Newlands may be producing results but it is unpopular with Scotland’s largest teaching union. EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said that the type of provision it offers should be within the local authority “not outside it”.
“There is a very limited pot of money to be spent on education. If state funding is allocated to projects such as Newlands, this could have a significant knock-on impact on the resources available in state schools,” he said.
First minister Nicola Sturgeon has previously visited NJC and this week a government spokeswoman welcomed “the contribution independent schools like Newlands Junior College make to education and the role they play supporting our drive to close the attainment gap”. She added that inspectors’ feedback showed that young people who were previously disengaged “are now showing an interest in their studies and attending school regularly”.
Mr McColl told TESS that the education system placed too much emphasis on university and that a young pipe fitter or plumber in his company would be paid more than a graduate accountant. He is in talks about opening several more colleges like NJC around Scotland.
Disengaged pupils “will end up in a poverty trap, unless we re-engage with them and give them the skills to go and get worthwhile work,” he added.
The NJC graduate’s story
“I hated school – I just didn’t see the point of getting up and going in, and didn’t enjoy it at all,” says 16-year-old Chris Baillie, one of last week’s NJC graduates, who is now going on to a pipe-fitting and welding apprenticeship at Ferguson’s Shipyard in Port Glasgow.
He never understood why he was suspended for the occasional “bit of rough and tumble” – making him feel even more alienated from school. His parents were deeply worried about his apathy towards education: “They didn’t see me coming this far,” he said.
But he has thrived at NJC, where “we’re all like a wee family”. Students are inspired by Jim McColl’s fleet of luxury cars and Chris knows that there are consequences for acting up: a guaranteed apprenticeship or college place is something to hold on to. “Everything’s different about me now,” he says. “I just realised I needed to start knuckling down.”