This last 12 months have been extraordinarily difficult for all those with an interest in education, whether they be pupils, teachers or parents. The impact of Covid will reverberate years after the virus has finally been laid to rest. Youngsters already marooned on the wrong side of the attainment gap, are now faced by a chasm. Some, whose final year of education has been wiped out by the pandemic, will be further disadvantaged when entering the shrunken post-school job market.

Thankfully, it’s not all gloom and doom. The last couple of weeks have produced two beacons of hope for the future. Firstly, there’s the uplifting tale of Edinburgh’s Castlebrae Community High School, which only a few years ago seemed a hopeless case, heading for inevitable closure. In 2014, its first-year intake was a mere eight pupils. The second good news story is the partnership between the Hunter Foundation and the Scottish Government to invest £26.9 million in a nationwide mentoring and leadership programme for young people.

READ MORE: Policing by consent will be collateral damage of divisive policies

In terms of the so-called “Gold Standard” in Scottish education, the percentage of pupils attaining five or more passes at Higher, Castlebrae is still bumping along the bottom. Newspaper headlines such as, “Exam league tables reveal Scotland’s best and worst schools”, do nothing to help the Castlebraes of this world. Exam results can reveal many things; the cost of houses in areas with the highest attaining schools or the number of children with private tutors, but they certainly don’t “reveal Scotland’s best and worst schools”. They tell little about how well schools meet the broader needs of their pupils and communities or the quality of teaching.

In some of our “best schools”, pupils do well despite the teaching. If you think that sounds like someone with an axe to grind, you’re spot on. Thirty years ago, I was headteacher of a large secondary school serving some of the country’s most socially deprived areas. The school had been formed through the merging of two others that, like Castlebrae, had experienced a sharp decline in rolls and fortunes. To its credit, the local council invested heavily in improving the building, but more importantly, the school was blessed with a hugely committed and talented staff.

Things went well, and by the early 1990s the school had grown to be the largest in the city with a year one roll of well over 300. Inevitably there were setbacks along the way. One of the biggest happened in 1992, with publication of the first exam league tables. It was one of the worst days of my professional life. All these years later, I still recall a youngster saying, “We’re the tenth worst school in Scotland”. It felt like a kick in the teeth for the staff and parents who had invested so much time and effort convincing our youngsters they were part of something worthwhile and successful. Luckily, although I didn’t necessarily think so at the time, we were promptly “blessed” by a three-week inspection by HM Inspectorate. Their very positive report helped undo much of the damage inflicted by the league tables. We were also fortunate to have the support of Herald legend, Barclay McBain, whose supportive and perceptive pieces did much to restore morale.

Read more: Covid proves we are all poorer if it’s the greedy who inherit the earth

There is a synergy between the Castlebrae renaissance and the investment being made by The Hunter Foundation’s partnership with the Scottish Government. Both look beyond the, admittedly important, exam statistics. Closing the attainment gap is a hugely complex, long-term educational and social issue. It won’t happen until we provide youngsters with role models, enhance their sense of self-worth and above all, give them a taste of enjoyment and success. It’s essential to create a “critical mass” in which success breeds success and is celebrated at every opportunity. How many adults could tolerate a workplace in which a sense of failure is regularly reinforced and they are publicly judged according to criteria they’re never going to meet? It wouldn’t be long before allegations of workplace bullying were being aired. Yet, that is the daily experience of too many young Scots.

Many of our so-called lowest attaining pupils have seen through a system built around courses and experiences they know are unlikely to lead to worthwhile post-school opportunities. In that environment you keep quiet about aspiration and achievement. Commendably, Castlebrae is breaking out of the self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity and failure. Attendance and attainment are on the up and all of last year’s leavers progressed to work, training or further study. That positivity suggests pupils are buying into something they believe to be worthwhile and successful. The new £28 million campus at Craigmillar, will be a further positive sign of belief and success, not only for youngsters, but the whole local community.

The generous investment by the Hunter Foundation and Scottish Government in national mentoring and leadership programmes, recognises the importance of personal relationships and positive role models in promoting achievement and success in all schools, particularly those in less affluent areas. For the scheme to be successful, youngsters in those areas should be able to identify with their mentors. The positive message will be more powerful coming from those with similar backgrounds to their own and have overcome similar difficulties. It would take an exceptional public school-educated lawyer to impress some of the pupils with whom I’ve worked.

To break the cycle of negativity and failure we need to widen our definition of Scotland’s “best” schools, way beyond the five Higher “Gold Standard”. For me, all of Castlebrae’s leavers going on to positive destinations is a more reliable indicator of a good school, than the percentage of those attaining five Highers in the leafy suburbs.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.