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'We can tackle the poverty gap one kid at a time' TES Scotland Article

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How can schools drive up the attainment of disadvantaged young people? With vocational courses in everything from beekeeping to construction, of course. Kingussie High has hit on the formula of motivating pupils by enabling them to study the subjects they are most interested in – and the results speak for themselves. Outgoing head Ollie Bray tells Emma Seith why all school leaders should take more advantage of the breadth of qualifications on offer.

An empty janitor’s house sits in the grounds of Kingussie High. At first sight, it is a very basic, uninspiring 1970s bungalow – but see it through the eyes of Ollie Bray, the Highland school’s headteacher, and it is transformed. Where once there was simply a modest home in need of some TLC, suddenly there is a “mini-college” waiting to happen.

Currently, part of the house is given over to pupils studying painting and decorating, who use the building to hone their skills. And there is a polytunnel outside, where pupils grow their own vegetables.

Bees have also been ordered. They’re coming from Wick, a town in Caithness in the far north of Scotland – English bees would not be hardy enough to survive the Scottish winter, Bray explains.

Eventually, Bray would like to see the building gutted and vocational courses being run there for pupils – and also for the local community. It’s the sort of initiative that sums up Kingussie High these days: bold, innovative and a genuine departure from schools’ traditionally narrow emphasis on “academic”, exam-driven study.

Since Bray arrived at Kingussie – a small secondary with just 450 pupils and 33 teaching staff – in 2012, he and his team have more than doubled the number of subjects on offer, in the wake of a negative inspection. Pupils’ attainment has since gone from being below the national average to above it.

All this success has caught the attention of the Lego Foundation – the Danish toy company’s education arm. In the October break, Bray will perform one of the most eye-catching career changes ever seen in Scottish education, leaving Kingussie and relocating to Billund in Denmark to explore ways of establishing play-based learning in schools as the foundation’s “director of global initiatives to connect play and education”.

When Tes Scotland visits, there is a little over a week to go before Bray leaves. As he wraps up his six-year spell here and reflects on what has happened over that period, it is the ideal time to find out how he and his team have transformed Kingussie High.

The robust Wick bees are a good place to start: they will be used for a National Progression Award (NPA) in beekeeping, equivalent to a National 5. The project is being led by the school’s home economics teacher, Rachel Richards. She moved to Kingussie High two years ago from an all-girls’ school in Hertfordshire after being wooed by a carefully crafted Facebook advert promising a better life in the Scottish Highlands, and classes of no more than 20 pupils.

If you were to ask most Scottish secondary teachers and school leaders what an NPA was, Bray reckons they would not be able to tell you. In fact, he argues that a large percentage of education professionals – heads included – do not fully understand the range of qualifications that are available in Scotland. Many do not know the difference between an SVQ (Scottish Vocational Qualification), an NPA or an NC (National Certificate), or how an Advanced Higher measures up against an HNC (Higher National Certificate), he suggests.

Bray finds this astonishing and says the result is that pupils around Scotland are failing to achieve their potential in school.

“If you just take it from the attainment point of view, there will be schools where the kids are just not attaining because they are in the wrong subjects,” he explains. “The very simple way to think about it – I was a geography teacher – is that if you only offer geography, history and modern studies, and the kids don’t like geography, history and modern studies, they’re not going to do well unless they are particularly motivated.”

And with so much of Scotland’s education policy now driven by the attempt to help children from poorer backgrounds get on in life, focusing on pupils who are less motivated becomes critical. “If we really want to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap, we do it one kid at a time. It’s about absolutely knowing your kids and making it work,” Bray says.

‘Fixated’ on grades

For too many schools, the emphasis is on driving up the grades in the courses they already offer, rather than developing a curriculum around courses that pupils actually want to do, he believes.

“Instead of focusing on improvements to the school curriculum, many headteachers instead become fixated on trying to improve the number of Cs to Bs, or Bs to As,” he says. “While I am not saying this isn’t important, what I am saying is that young people will always do considerably better in subjects that they want to study, rather than ones they are forced to take.

“In my experience, very few schools in Scotland actually properly tailor their senior-phase curriculum to their local need or their local context. You can identify this by looking at the narrow range of subjects and types of qualification – normally Nationals and Highers – that most young people leave secondary school with.”

NPAs and NCs have traditionally been considered college qualifications, says Bray. However, now that schools are no longer supposed to be judged on how many N5s or Highers pupils get – but rather their overall attainment via the tariff score – permission has been given “to be a lot more imaginative and relevant” with the qualifications offered. The trouble is, he says, many schools have yet to take advantage of this.

It is not helpful to view qualifications in silos, either as “school qualifications” or “college qualifications”, says Rob Wallen, a former college principal, and the chair of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) Partnership Board.

The SCQF attempts to make sense of the full gamut of Scottish qualifications – from N1 to doctorate – by demonstrating how they relate to each other. It shows, for example, that an HNC is equivalent to an Advanced Higher, and the new Foundation Apprenticeships – specifically designed to be delivered to pupils in schools – are deemed as demanding as Highers.

There are schools, says Wallen, where pupils’ needs may be most appropriately met through Nationals, Highers and Advanced Highers. But even in those schools, young people would benefit from “some additionality in the curriculum”, and most secondaries will need to offer a broader range to “motivate the whole cohort”.

Already, many schools are realising that non-traditional qualifications have value, says Wallen, but there are barriers. Parents, for instance, might be resistant to their child being put forward for a qualification that they have never heard of. It is also, quite simply, harder for schools to offer a wide range of qualifications.

“It’s not always easy for schools to timetable in half a dozen extra subjects,” says Wallen. “They may not have the staffing available; they might need to combine a cohort with another school, or fit in with a college timetable. That’s more complex than simply saying, ‘You’re all doing N4.’ But in order to meet the needs of all young people, it’s important that all schools consider whether they should and can broaden the range of what they offer.”

The issue is not a lack of understanding about the range of qualifications out there, according to Jim Thewliss, general secretary of secondary heads’ body School Leaders Scotland. A lot of the difficulty stems from the value given to Highers, as “the gold standard” in Scotland’s education system.

This means schools are constantly fighting a battle with parents in order to convince them that other qualifications are worth having. “We are winning to a degree, but this is not just about headteachers not understanding or taking their eye off the ball,” says Thewliss.

Employers and universities also need to be persuaded of the worth of this broader range of qualifications, says Louise Hayward, professor of curriculum assessment and pedagogy at the University of Glasgow. But if the philosophy of Curriculum for Excellence is to be realised, with its vision of personalisation and choice for pupils, and schools being more than “exam factories”, then those who “cash in the qualifications” must be convinced, she believes.

“If you have young people engaging in areas of the curriculum they are excited by, you have more effective learning going on, children who are less likely to be turned off, and children who are more likely to become lifelong learners,” Hayward adds.

‘At the cutting edge’

Kingussie High is the trailblazer when it comes to tailoring a school’s offering to pupils. “The traditional view of life is changing and Ollie Bray and Kingussie High are at the cutting edge of that change,” Thewliss says.

So how have they achieved so much? When Bray arrived at Kingussie in 2012, it had just received a negative inspection report. The school was delivering a traditional curriculum – “the kind that’s designed to get pupils five Highers so they can go to university”, as Bray puts it. But given that, in 2013-14, just 20 per cent of pupils went on to higher education (a proportion that has now risen to just over 43 per cent), the curriculum was failing to hit the mark for the bulk of pupils.

Kingussie High is situated in the small town of the same name – it has a population of around 1,500 and is most famous for its fierce shinty rivalry with neighbouring Newtonmore. It is in the Cairngorms National Park, near a 250-acre safari park and zoo, the Highland Wildlife Park.

The S3 twins who give me a tour of Kingussie High – Hamish and Hannah Henderson – talk about opting out of a ski trip to France because they can ski in the mountains on their doorstep, and have done since the age of 2. Head of geography Ailith Stewart, who has been at the school for all 30-plus years of her career, describes the local area as a playground: you can ski, mountain bike, kayak and walk the hills.

However, despite the local context, a rural skills course had been scrapped at the school before Bray arrived because it was deemed too expensive. He reinstated it.

And in spite of the stunning countryside on the school’s doorstep, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – which requires participants to show their mettle on an outdoor expedition of up to four days and three nights – was not offered. Now, all S3 pupils get the chance to undertake an award, and 90 per cent of senior pupils complete one. Other changes to the curriculum have also been driven by what the local area has to offer, and what pupils might do when they leave Kingussie High. So the school runs courses in travel and tourism, and active tourism. The strong local renewables sector has also prompted the introduction of engineering science, practical metalwork and construction.

Kingussie views the final three years of school as a continuum, so when pupils make their subject choices in S3, they look at what they want to study in S4, and also in S5 and S6. Parents are fully involved in these discussions. This forward planning means that the school has become more aware of pupils who might be thinking of leaving before the end of S6, and some courses are run every two years to make them viable – early years, childcare and retail, for example.

Bray says he does not expect the local college (Inverness College UHI, which is a half-hour drive away) to send out lecturers to deliver a lesson here or there. Instead, college courses are delivered on the same afternoon every week.

“The quite unique thing about the whole of our timetable is that we have built it around partnership,” says Bray. “We have built it around the school being flexible to the partners we work with, rather than the other way around.”

‘Digital culture’

Another major change is that a “digital culture” has taken root at the school, says Bray, who was previously a national adviser for learning and technology futures with Learning and Teaching Scotland (which later merged with HM Inspectorate of Education to become Education Scotland). In 2014, every S1-3 pupil was given their own device – a Chromebook – and the scheme has expanded annually, so that every pupil now has a laptop.

This has opened up the possibility of students taking online courses. But the main advantages, Bray believes, are that they can get real-time feedback from teachers and more personalised learning, and that communication with parents has improved.

However, it has taken “time and effort” to learn how to use the Chromebooks effectively in the classroom, says Stewart: “You never get all the kids coming in with them, and then they break and there aren’t the resources to fix them. It’s good but it’s not without its complications.”

Stewart says she has loved working with Bray. He has lifted the mood of the school and changed public perceptions. And the key to the improved attainment? “The introduction of the vocational courses has had a huge impact, because that’s all counted in the statistics,” she says.

In other words, giving pupils more ways to attain has driven up attainment – which makes you wonder why more schools aren’t doing it.

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith


‘Passionate teachers who believe in their subject’

Rachel Richards was head of design and technology at Hitchin Girls’ School in Hertfordshire when she saw the advert for a home economics teacher post at Kingussie High in the Highlands.

She was leading a department of 12 staff but was sick of bureaucracy, working 90-hour weeks and never seeing her own children. She decided to take the plunge and has been working at the school for two years.

“It has definitely been the right decision. I see my kids now all the time because they come to this school,” she says.

Scotland is suffering a teacher shortage, particularly in remote and rural areas, and home economics is one of the subjects where vacancies are tough to fill.

Richards – who has received death threats from animal rights activists after letting her pupils butcher animals to make “bunny burgers” and “pheasant jalfrezi” – had her work at the school recognised when she was shortlisted in the UK-wide Eat Game Awards 2018 (see

Kingussie head Ollie Bray says the school has gone out of its way to write “quirky adverts” to recruit staff, selling the outdoor Highlands lifestyle and highlighting “hidden gems” of Scottish education – including the little-known fact that class sizes in practical subjects are capped at 20.

The school’s marketing has also succeeded in recruiting a London-based computing and maths teacher and a science teacher who was working at an international school in Barcelona.

“We have never made an appointment where we don’t think they are right for the school,” says Bray. “We have always employed passionate people who believe in their subject and what they are doing.”


A changing curriculum to meet pupils’ needs

The schools’ inspectorate recently told MSPs that “radical” changes to the courses on offer in senior secondary were underway in Scotland.

Alan Armstrong, Education Scotland’s strategic director, said there had been a change from the linear route linking Standard grade, Higher and Advanced Higher, with pupils dropping out along the way. Now “a web or a matrix” of courses was being offered across S4-6 “in some schools, to open up the opportunities for pupils” and give them “a larger menu of courses and options”, he said.

And because the senior phase cohort changes every year – a new S4 comes in and S6 goes out – course choices will constantly change and grow, he added.

Kingussie High is an example of a school where you can see this process happening.

This year, five students are studying for an HNC in sport coaching – a qualification traditionally delivered by colleges. The course is being run jointly by Inverness College UHI and three of the school’s teachers, who have essentially become associate lecturers.

The need for the qualification became apparent three years ago, says headteacher Ollie Bray. During the S3 course-choice process, the school realised that it had “a particularly sporty bunch”, who might get Higher PE but then leave school early for college or not do as well at school as they could.

But now these five pupils are on track to achieve the HNC a year earlier than they might otherwise have done, and three of them plan to study for their HND at college next year.

“They have saved that money they would have spent living away from home, and they have been learning at the right level,” says Bray.


‘We can do things differently’

Play is not just for the early years, argues headteacher Ollie Bray, who, when Tes Scotland speaks to him, is about to take up a job working for the Lego Foundation as director of global initiatives to connect play and education.

“Actually, what play teaches you in the early years are exactly the same things we should be working on in secondary: the ability to collaborate, cope with failure or carry out a task when there’s a massive distraction going on,” he says. “All those things are really important and could be added to the adult world, but we are not very good at teaching those in schools.”

Exactly what Bray’s new role at the Lego Foundation will entail remains to be seen – no one has ever done the job before. But he subscribes to the foundation’s mission that we need to reinvent education so that it is fit for purpose.

Bray argues that this is what he has been trying to do at Kingussie High for the past six years.

“We can do things differently – and, actually, we have demonstrated that if you do things differently, it can have a significant impact,” he says.

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