Kids who succeed at BOG standard comprehensives

Families refusing to turn their backs on local schools are reaping the reward, finds Jackie Kemp There is barely an inch of wall in David and Patricia Beveridge's sitting room that is not covered with photographs of young people dressed in mortar-boards and graduation gowns, holding rolled-up scrolls. For the couple's eight children are a formidable bunch, bristling with top-class qualifications. Youngest son Martin, 20, is no exception. Now in third year of law at Glasgow University, he left school with seven Highers - six As in English, French, history, computing, Latin, music, a B in maths and two Advanced Highers. So what did sea captain David and his homemakerwife Patricia have to shell out on school fees forMartin's education? Or did they pay a premium to live in a leafy suburb near to a "good" school?

Neither – because Martin is a product of Glasgow’s East End secondary St Mungo’s Academy. So is his sisterHannah, 19, with seven Highers with As in music and Latin and doing biology at Glasgow, and baby Esther, 18, with six Highers who is currently at Queen’s University, Belfast.

The Beveridges may be a little more blessed than most but in fact they are not unusual.

League tables may have been abolished, but every year the same dilemma confronts parents. It distracts from the reality that there are many families across Scotland who are quietly producing children with exam results that top private schools would be proud of from what were once famously described as “bog-standard” comprehensives.

Nervous panic sometimes grips middleclass parents when they contemplate sending their beloved offspring into the hurly burly of a big school where most children will gain few exams. Many families who have the resources to do so opt out of this social mix.

Houses in the catchment area of schools at the top of the exam league can cost tens of thousands of pounds more than those streets outside the boundary. But there are some families who can’t or won’t move to the “exclusion zone” and yet produce highly educated, motivated and confident children. How do they manage to outperform the majority in their environments?

At St Mungo’s Academy for instance, only 14per cent of pupils leave with three ormore Highers – against a national Scottish average of 30per cent. The three young Beveridges were among a handful of straight-A students. They also had good relations with staff, formed close friendships and were stars of the school orchestras, athletics teams and school plays. Martin’s favourite subject was Latin. “French is all about where the nearest restaurant is. In Latin we were translating Cicero”. He also finds it extremely useful in studying law.

It was not always easy, say Hannah and Martin, particularly in the first two years of secondary when classes were mixed ability, more prone to disruption than the top sets of later years. It sometimes took strength of character to stay the course in an environment where being clever can be socially costly.

“It was unheard of for anyone to stick their hand up in class, you just didn’t answer but I kept on doing it and I think in the end there was some respect for that, ” Martin said.

But in the main, Hannah and Martin enjoyed their experience of growing up amid East End Glaswegians, high-achieving or not. “There were some really lovely people at my school, “Hannah said.

David, who has been away at sea for nearly half the children’s lives, says a strong family culture and religious faith have helped. “This is a Christian house. We have never had a meal that we didn’t pray about.

These are the kind of bedrock values that help people not to drift in this world.”

Another family who have produced high-flyers from ordinary local schools, the Ushers who live in seaside Portobello, on eastern edge of Edinburgh, have perhaps had tougher challenges, despite the school’s better standing in league tables.

Portobello is currently undergoing gentrification and the High School’s results are in tune with the national average, with 30per cent getting three or more Highers. However, there are also some children with severe problems in the mix.

Olivier Usher was once beaten up. “I know people who had it a lot worse than that. The bullying tended to happen on the way home, outside the school’s control.”

It would have been difficult for a boy as brainy as Olivier, recently a University Challenge contestant for University College London where he now studies, not to stand out. Like the Beveridges, he recalls struggling to concentrate in mixed-ability classes in the lower years of high school.

“I was in a geography class that was kept mixed ability up until fourth year. About 25per cent of the people were trying to work and the rest not. A lot of the time it was chaos.

There were people having stand-up rows with the teacher, shouting at the teacher.”

Nevertheless, Olivier got an A in geography at standard grade. “At that level, geography is basically common sense, ” he explains.

His father Professor Jon Usher, who teaches Italian at Edinburgh University, felt that Olivier and his older brother, Thomas, who now has a first from Cambridge, at times had to struggle against the system. In first and second year “they seemed to be just treading water, they didn’t seem to be learning much, ” he said. “There was a lot of time-wasting.” From third to fifth year they were locked into the syllabus with exams every year. Then in sixth year, he felt they were at a disadvantage competing to get into English universities.

“In English schools, sixth form is a big deal. They invest a lot in it. Here it was a bit like ‘OK you can do those courses in a cupboard if you really, really want to’.”

Using Scottish qualifications down south was also a problem. “They have grade inflation in England. That’s why they have introduced A stars. Whereas here things have been about level for a very long time, so they judge a qualification that is relatively common as equivalent to one that is quite hard to get.”

At Cambridge Thomas struggled with the seminar system initially. Having missed out on an English-style sixth form: “He just didn’t feel he had had the same education as the people he was with. He got the hang of it eventually and got a very good first.”

He is now studying for a “stage”, an EC qualification.

In some ways, Olivier feels his education was a valuable preparation for life. He says he has a very different understanding of society from some of his contemporaries at university. He adds: “I’ve got used to working on my own. I don’t expect a lot of hand-holding and in that sense it was a good preparation for university.”

A spokesman for Edinburgh education authority said a city-wide programme to meet the needs of the top 10per cent of pupils encourages schools to provide extra work for the most able while there is also a citywide seminar for students aiming to do Oxbridge entrance examinations.

Meanwhile, in Motherwell, Marion McReady is very happy with her two daughters’ results from BrannockHigh in the post-industrial Newarthill area; daughter Amanda, who has five Highers and three Advanced Highers, is studying medicine at Glasgow University and 16-yearold Laura, who got five As at Higher last summer, is also seeking to play volleyball for Scotland.

At Brannock only 21per cent of children leave school with three Highers. But the McReadys were not held back. “They’ve just always been interested, they’ve always wanted to learn and we’ve tried to encourage them”, Marion, who works part-time at Boots, says. Laura says her father Ian, a BT engineerwho is himself studying with the Open University, is also an important influence, nagging her to revise two months before her exams.

Friends at school are also supportive.

“There’ve a few comments, like ‘How can you be so brainy?’ but nothing nasty, ” she explains.

Kathleen McGravie is one of four siblings who have passed through Edinburgh’s Holy Rood High recently, with the youngest still at the school. Situated in the Niddrie estate, Holy Rood also equals the national average for Higher results, with 30per cent getting three ormore.

Kathleen, 21, did better, getting five, and is now in the fourth year of a degree in Fine Art at Edinburgh University. She was more than satisfied with her education. “I still keep in touch with a couple of my teachers. I see them as friends, ” she says.

“I think some parents worry too much and maybe interfere too much. I know it’s hard but I think you have to trust yourself and trust your children. My parents have let us get on with it. They have never been judgmental about who we have chosen to befriend.”

Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council believes motivated children can lift a whole school’s performance.

“When schools see children like that succeeding it gives them confidence, they realise that their school is a good school even if it is low down in the league tables, because the children who can do well are doing well, ” she adds.

A DIFFERENT LEAGUE Tom Burnett, head of St Mungo’s Academy in Glasgow, believes that given more pupils like the Beveridge family “we could stand the league tables on their head.”

“We offer a lot of extra-curricular activity here, they were involved in everything that was going on and they made a lot of friends. And we have a lot of children like that.”

Burnett, whose own five daughters all went to John Paul Academy in Glasgow and then on to university, said the main indicator of a child’s success is having “a supportive family where education is valued”.

Although almost all of the highachieving children The Herald spoke to found life easier when they were placed in top sets at around third year, Burnett said that teaching mixed-ability groups was no problem for teachers: “It is mixed-attitude groups that are the problem.”

Sometimes bright children chose to be disruptive and cause trouble, he added, “but sometimes you do see them giving themselves a shake and saying ‘I am brighter than I thought I was, I could achieve something here’. It’s very rewarding when that happens and the doors must be left open for them to do that.”

The Scottish Herald
December 21st 2004