‘Young people should get the credit they deserve’: How pupils in a school in the west of Scotland are rocking the world

Respect, hands-on involvement in the community and raising aspirations are the key factors helping pupils at a high school in Argyll achieve new heights in education and improve their prospects for the future.

“Young people often get a bad press but they should get the credit they deserve,” according to head teacher David Mitchell, who has overseen a turnaround in student attainment in the nine years since he took over at Dunoon Grammar.

As the only secondary in Cowal, the school receives pupils from all over the peninsula and has a boarding hostel for the youngsters from furthest away.

The area is home to some of the most socially deprived households in Scotland.

In 2012 figures showed the exam pass rate among senior pupils at the school had lagged behind the rest of Argyll and Bute for three consecutive years.

But that was then.

Now Dunoon Grammar is the only Scottish entrant in the running for a global best schools award, in recognition of its outstanding community collaboration.

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Dunoon Grammar is the only Scottish entrant in the running for a prestigious prize recognising the world's best schools, nominated for great community collaboration. Picture: Ronnie Cairns

The nominations recognises some of the things pupils have got involved in around the local area, including innovative outreach work to combat loneliness, isolation and loss of services during the Covid-19 pandemic.

And headmaster Mitchell could not be more proud of the youngsters' achievements, which he says are down to a combination of “fabulous staff, who do a fantastic job, great parent support and engagement with locals”.

“Without them we wouldn’t be where we are,” he said.

He admits that exam results were “not great” when he first took up his post.

Dunoon Grammar pupils have been involved in numerous projects around the local area, including delivering meals and food parcels to families and vulnerable people during the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Ronnie Cairns

But the situation is markedly improved, with more senior pupils staying on at school after the age of 16 today than in years gone by.

“The first thing we did was work with young people to create a positive environment,” he said.

“Results were poor and there was a lack of motivation, but we helped them with that and now things have levelled out.

“I truly believe that’s because they have a great ethos.

Exam pass rates have risen, more seniors are staying on to study after age 16 and this year has seen the highest ever number of students applying to universities. Picture: Ronnie Cairns

“It’s most important that young people understand their worth and get respect.”

A number of initiatives contributed to Dunoon Grammar’s nomination for the Education World’s best schools award, such as schemes to help people in the area – especially the elderly and young children – get through coronavirus lockdowns and enable them to “reconnect”.

“During Covid the school went above and beyond, delivering meals to families on a daily basis and handing out food parcels to vulnerable people,” Mitchell said.

“The whole school – pupils, teaching staff, caterers, janitors, everyone – we all pulled together.

"We are one team.

Dunoon Grammar head David Mitchell, himself a former pupil and one-time head boy, says young people need to know they have worth and respect. Picture: Ronnie Cairns

“S6 classes went out to elderly folk to deliver special parcels of basic provisions – coffee, tea, biscuits, sweets, that sort of thing, made up by the school.

“They were just a wee message of love, to say we’re thinking of you, you’re not alone.

“We got a lot of messages and good feedback.

“It was such a small thing but made a big difference.”

Students from the school have also scooped the top prize in a UK-wide competition run by Apps For Good three years in a row.

Winning projects include an innovative dementia map, which helps families keep track of relatives with cognitive problems, and the Carbon Kicker, a machine learning solution that helps assess and reduce the user’s environmental footprint.

Employment in the area has always been an issue, but Mitchell, himself a former pupil and head boy at Dunoon Grammar, believes the school is moving in a positive direction and hopes it can help curb the ‘brain drain’.

“Like in most rural areas, young people leave to get further education or find work,” he said.

“We want to provide them with opportunities to get good jobs or set up their own businesses.

“We have worked with the community to ensure we’re providing the right courses, education and skills for the lives young people will want to live.

“It has taken years of hard work, but aspirations have been raised.

“The stay-on rate for seniors is increasing too, because their education is meaningful.

“They’re getting the opportunities they want.

“This year we had the highest ever rate of applications for universities.

“That’s because they have high aspirations.”

Pupils are also heavily involved in a major regeneration scheme planned for the town – the Dunoon Project – which aims to see the area transformed into a world-class tourist destination with attractions such as a cable car to take tourists up a hill and a rollercoaster to take them down again.

They have formed a youth advisory board, and are part of discussions to shape the plans.

Brendon Wallace, chair of the Dunoon Project, said: “Having the input of local school pupils to the project planning process right from the start has been a hugely important part of our community engagement ambitions.

“Their ideas and interest in how the project will be designed has been really heartening and enlightening.

“All the adults involved are delighted that this truly unique, visionary community regeneration initiative offers so much potential for the young people in Dunoon and surrounding area.

“After all, what we are trying to create here will offer a massive boost to our youngsters’ future.

“The project will offer them an opportunity to stay and work in the local area and feel proud that we have used our spectacular landscape to breathe much-needed life back into the town and surrounding area.”

Famous alumni from Dunoon Grammar include actor Sylvester McCoy, best known as the seventh Doctor Who, respected politician and former Labour leader John Smith and journalist, businessman and former UK energy minister Brian Wilson, columnist for The Scotsman – and of course Neil McIntosh, editor of The Scotsman.

Mitchell added: “Every child is different and they learn in different ways.

“We want Dunoon Grammar to be a place for everyone.

“It’s not perfect and we’ve got a long way to go.

“But people care.”


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