I was lucky yesterday to meet up with an old friend at Newlands Junior College – a unique, vocational provision for 14-16 year olds, housed in a former factory in Newlands in the south side of Glasgow. It is an independent provision, funded, in the main by industrial entrepreneur, Jim McColl and exists to provide young people who have struggled to engage in the mainstream system with an opportunity to learn through an intensive support programme involving academic, vocational and personal development.
I’d known about the existence of Newlands for a while, and I was really pleased to find out about what was going on first hand. A few things struck me about Newlands. There was a very relaxed atmosphere in the building and a big emphasis on student responsibility for learning. The starting point for the timetable is staff availability. The subjects taught are English, mathematics, science and ICT. PSE runs through the curriculum and features strongly. The timetable shows when the relevant staff are available and students decide which subjects they attend. This allows them to focus on priorities as they arise (folio pieces, for example) and manage their own programmes. Each student also has a vocational placement and supplementary training or qualifications are provided in partnership with a range of businesses, training organisations or City of Glasgow FE college. It is an entirely unique arrangement in many ways, but is clearly responding to a significant need that the mainstream system cannot meet.
The relaxed atmosphere is balanced by an ethic of professionalism. Students wear uniform and staff dress smartly. Some teaching spaces are open plan. All the offices, including meeting rooms and the principal’s office have transparent walls so that all working processes are visible to students and visitors. Students can choose how they address staff, using first name terms or standard titles, which some still choose to use. De-institutionalising can be difficult for young people. Classroom walls are written on and used very effectively as whiteboard spaces – this too can challenge some. There is no behaviour policy – there is no need for one. A few agreed rules – no shouting; no sarcasm, no greetin’ !, no excuses – and a clear focus on relationships do a much, much better job. Personally, I’m more and more persuaded that there is never a need for a behaviour policy, but that’s for a different discussion.
There is no doubt that this is a very important, exciting and successful innovation. There are big questions though, around sustainability and replicability. Neither of these have a straightforward answer. Part of its uniqueness and success has to be down to the qualities and experiences of the staff who have been selected to teach there, and from what I saw yesterday, they are a uniquely impressive group. Also the unique nature of the circumstances – a focus on work and industry, funded by an industrialist, in a post-industrial city, obviously gives rise to certain opportunities specific to the location of the college. And the funding itself – this raises questions of both replicability and sustainability. I know that some significant work is going on in this regard to expand or extend the concept of Newlands, and I really hope that it meets with success. Many, many young people deserve a chance like this. This is GIRFEC in action, and although it’s very difficult to replicate, there is a lot that can be learned.
So who was my old friend? Well, this was a personal highlight for me. I met up again with a student friend from teacher-training days at Jordanhill, Graham Robertson. Graham is now head of guidance, careers and business links at Newlands Junior College and we haven’t seen each other since Jordanhill. A chance meeting at the SELMAS forum allowed us to get back in touch and it was great to hear that he’s still in education, and about how his career developed over the years. We were in an elective class together for PSE which was taught by the one and only John MacBeath. Things we both learned there have stayed with us over all those years, and influenced us both in our thinking about socialisation and relationships in education. How lucky we were to take that class -it was definitely the highlight of my postgraduate course. Looking back, though, I don’t think we realised at the time quite what a privilege it was. Great to see you Graham, thank you so much for my visit, and I’m hoping we can develop useful links for our students and yours, in times to come.