City school transforms its exam results in just two years

Head teacher Sheila Paton with students Nicola Thorpe and Connor Walker
Head teacher Sheila Paton with students Nicola Thorpe and Connor Walker
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UNTIL three years ago, not a single pupil at Wester Hailes Education Centre had achieved five or more Standard Grades at credit level.

Given that the secondary school, which serves one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas, first opened its doors in 1978 it was a shocking statistic.

But fast forward to 2012 and in a dramatic shift which will attract attention from schools across the city, a record 21 per cent of S4 pupils at the school have achieved five or more Standard Grades at credit level in their recent results – up from two per cent in 2009 and nine per cent last year.

But what has led to the remarkable turnaround in recent years?

Head teacher Sheila Paton has undoubtedly played a key role in helping to achieve the best Standard Grade exam results in the school’s history, as well as other members of staff – including depute head Stuart Heggie and Ms Paton’s predecessor, Alex Wood, from whom she took over in August last year.

Ms Paton has a wealth of teaching experience, having previously taught at a number of schools across the Capital, including the Royal High School where she was deputy head for seven years.

She said three main approaches introduced over the last two years had contributed to the improvement in Standard Grade performance, providing the perfect platform for pupils to go on and change the school’s poor Higher performance.

Among them is a focus on improving pupil attendance, including a reward system for junior pupils which sees them given a free weekend swimming voucher in return for a 95 per cent attendance record.

And the results are clear for all to see, with attendance in S3 sitting at 78 per cent in 2007-08 and rising to 89 per cent last year.

Teachers have also been meeting in small groups every month to look at how they can make lessons more engaging, sharing ideas and experiences with their colleagues.

And, perhaps most importantly, every pupil at the school has also been assigned a mentor – a member of staff who helps them set targets for their subjects and ensure that progress is being made.

Virtually every teacher is responsible for a group of up to 16 students whom they mentor during registration.

The time allocated for registration has been extended from “15 minutes of socialising, to 25 minutes of productivity”. The pupils use the time to reflect on the previous day’s lessons and work on their targets.

Using the “traffic light” system, they rate their understanding, behaviour and effort either red (major problems), amber (still room for improvement) or green (no problems).

Most importantly, staff at the school believe the culture is changing, with stories of pupils stopping them in the corridor to tell them they have been moved up to credit level – something that would have been unheard of five or six years ago.

Donna Heritage, curriculum leader for maths and numeracy, has also seen a transformation. This year she has 20 pupils sitting Higher maths, up from seven last year.

“It makes a difference,” she said. “It makes you feel good.”

And, as Ms Paton puts it, “every single member of staff takes responsibility for being the nag and making sure no-one goes under the radar”.

Even the janitor is known for reminding pupils that they should be back in time after their lunch break.

Ms Paton, who lives in Stockbridge, also pointed out that more junior pupils were choosing to wear shirts and ties rather than the more casual school polo shirt.

She added: “We are really proud of our students and all the staff.

“This isn’t a one-off – it’s a whole culture shift. The students are proud of their learning and doing well, and attaining qualifications.

“For the past three years, the focus has been on our school motto ‘Together we will succeed’. We wanted to change the culture to one of ambition and high expectations.”

The school, which is attended by more than 300 pupils, now hopes it can improve on its Higher results next year, which historically has not been an area of success.

“We’ve never had more than ten per cent of students achieve three Highers, but we will break through this barrier next session because the culture is changing and that’s coming through,” Ms Paton said. “I see it in our younger years.”

The city council said Wester Hailes Education Centre’s performance represented the biggest improvement in Standard Grade results at schools across the Capital this year. It is an achievement which could offer a blueprint for other schools to improve their performance.

The city’s education leader, councillor Paul Godzik, said: “The Wester Hailes Education Centre has undergone a very significant turnaround in the last few years and it’s fantastic that we’re seeing such vast improvements.

“Congratulations must go to all staff and pupils who have worked extremely hard to make this happen.

“I look forward to seeing the school go from strength to strength.”

‘Everyone has been working towards their targets’

FIFTH-year pupil Nicola Thorpe, 15, achieved four Intermediate 2 passes and one Intermediate 1 – and she was over the moon with her results.

She partly attributed her success in subjects including Business Management, English, Maths, Biology and PE to the mentoring programme.

Nicola, who lives in Clovenstone, said: “The mentoring in the morning motivated me to do the studying and helped in areas that I needed to focus on. I was pleased with my results.”

And she said the scheme was encouraging most children at the school to study more.

“Everyone has been working towards their targets more because they have been asked to in mentoring,” she said. “They choose to study more because they have got the time to do it during mentoring.”

She is now studying for Intermediate 2 Maths and Highers in Business Management, English, PE and Biology.


CONNOR Walker, 17, is busy studying for four Highers in English, Business Management, Media and PE.

The sixth-year pupil, who lives in Westburn, achieved an A, two Bs and a C at Intermediate 2 level in fifth year, and is hoping to do even better this year.

He branded the improvement in Standard Grade results at the school “incredible” and attributed the success to the mentoring programme.

“The mentoring gives us a lot more time to study and put in extra effort for our exams, which made much more of a difference,” he said.

“We get 25 minutes in the morning, which gives us time to finish homework, study or revise.

“It gives me time to look over and see where I went wrong. I’m more confident in class now because I know more answers.

“Your mentor is there if you need them and you build a good relationship with your mentor.”

Pupils credit ‘mentoring’ system

THE incredible achievement which has seen the Wetser Hailes Education Centre help its pupils attain historic grades has come about thanks to a range of measures implemented over the last two years.

One of the most effective, and the one most mentioned by pupils at the school, has been the mentoring system. This has given all students the chance to spend 30 minutes each morning going over the previous day’s lessons with a teacher, raising any issues of concern or simply getting some help with areas of their study that they find difficult. This extra help has been credited with both improving their understanding of subjects and also giving them more encouragement to learn.

The school has also brought in regular monthly staff meetings for teachers to discuss and devise ways to motivate their pupils more, and to encourage them to take a more active role in the school life, from incentives to attend class to projects the school can work on as a group.

These have helped encourage a greater pride in the school among students.

Attendance has also been a big issue to tackle, with the school having just a 70 per cent attendance rate last year. Schemes included an incentive put in place for junior pupils which offered free swimming for them and their family or friends in return for good attendance. These measures, combined with teachers taking on greater reasonability for ensuring pupils attend classes, has seen the attendance rate rise to 90 per cent, and helped boost results.