IT’S still considered to be one of the best reports ever handed down by Scotland’s schools inspectors. Five years later, one phrase continues to resonate with Paul McLaughlin, head teacher of St Ninian’s Secondary in Kirkintilloch.

“The inspectors gave us a glowing report,” he recalls, “in particular, they were thrilled with what they described as the school’s ‘anything is possible attitude’. To them, while exam results and the breadth and diversity of the curriculum were important it was the attitude underpinning our entire ethos that was crucial.

“They’d recognised that we’d created a culture where anything is possible for our children, no matter what their background or the challenges they’ve faced. You can be the best you can be here and the teachers can deliver of their very best.”

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This year, St Ninian’s celebrates its 150th year in existence, making it one of the oldest comprehensive schools in the West of Scotland. This nation is blessed with many fine schools, but few others are as culturally and emotionally embedded in the community it serves than this one.

It’s here that I must declare an interest. I spent four years in the late 1970s at St Ninian’s that were among the happiest of my life. It’s not that the school delivered exemplary exam results, or produced men and women who would shape Scotland’s destiny in high political offices and corporate boardrooms.

There was just something in its rhythms and the way it chose to rock. This would become evident when meeting others from those schools where similar socio-economic dynamics prevailed. All of them would remark on how those of us who had attended St Ninian’s had almost universally positive memories from our time there. On learning that I was a former pupil, one former Scottish Education Minister asked: “What is it about that school? Its name comes up again and again in meetings.”

While parents increasingly fret over exam results and pathways to higher education and governments measure ‘attainment’ in its narrowest and most exclusive form, pupils deploy a different suite of benchmarks in assessing their school’s worth: were they happy there; did they feel valued and protected; were they respected as individuals; did their teachers ‘see’ them.

Paul McLaughlin reflects on this when discussing the biggest changes in Scottish education during his 20 years as head teacher. “I want to be blunt about this,” he says. “There are some myths still circulating about the so-called golden days of education. That changes in society have made the job of teachers more difficult; that children are more aware of their ‘rights’ and thus less receptive to discipline. That’s not my perception, though.

The Herald: St Ninian's is 150 years oldSt Ninian's is 150 years old (Image: free)

“Pupils are the same as they were 20 years ago. Teenagers are teenagers. What we’ve been forced to do by societal changes is to focus more on developing positive relationships with the children. If the lack of sanctions and the sense of being more compliant with the rights of the child forces teachers to spend more time trying to get children on board then that’s a good thing.

“This school is at its best when teachers go out of their way to reach even the most difficult pupils. Our children will tell you that the best thing about this school is the way they’re treated by the teachers.

“It’s too easy to bang on about more paperwork and admin. But there have always been bits of education that stick in your throat and which we do under duress. Our mantra here is: values, attitudes and relationships. It underpins everything we do.”

With award ceremonies, there was a perception that the school had only been rewarding pupils for academic attainment. The criteria now, while still recognising academic excellence, are much more values-based. “We ask staff to nominate pupils who exemplify the best the values of the school,” says geography teacher, Frazer Satti.

“In this way the children know that their natural gifts will be recognised here. We want them to be the best versions of themselves. We know best the personal and family circumstances of our children and the challenges some of them might face each day.”

The sense of ownership of St Ninian’s by the community it serves is palpable in this area of east Dunbartonshire. An old history of the school chronicles its origins: “About 1830, Catholicism began to emerge again in Kirkintilloch. A community of Irish Catholics had been gradually gathering, attracted by the labour in the print fields of the district and in that year Mgr McLachlan was sent to Lennoxtown and the Catholics of Kirkintilloch went to Mass there.”

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The first school buildings and teachers were entirely funded by these communities following years of haphazard arrangements and the feeling that their own school was needed to dovetail with their spiritual values. Many of the children in the current school roll are directly descended from the agricultural labourers and miners who settled in places like Lennoxtown, Twechar, Croy and Kilsyth.

When a new school was built on the site of the old one the Dux boards and the war memorial were salvaged from the original buildings, as well as the stone cross which had stood at the front. For parents and local people it’s important that they can still see the names of the old families which built this school and those among them who sacrificed their lives in the two great wars.

Mr McLaughlin is candid about the role of faith and spirituality at the heart of the school. “There are many parents here who could live with a dip in attainment but won’t live with a dilution of the Catholic ethos. This doesn’t come from me; it comes from the parents. Our non-Catholic teachers all get that.

“Our school population has more children of other faiths and none than ever before. It’s the school of choice for many non-Catholic parents around here and much of this is rooted in the reputation we have for the pastoral care of every pupil, no matter their background or how they present themselves.”

The Herald: Kevin McKenna, far left of the front rowKevin McKenna, far left of the front row (Image: free)

Being a Catholic secondary where faith underpins the school’s entire family of values, are there any tensions evident in the interface where an old faith which clings to its fundamental beliefs meets the delicate and shifting terrain of gender identity?

“We have all identities here but they’re all perfectly comfortable. They all know they won’t be bullied or marginalised. Key to this is working with the families where this has become an issue. We have had children identifying as non-binary whose parents sent them here specifically because they wouldn’t be bullied and would receive full pastoral support.”

He recalls an incident not long before the pandemic when a group of pupils expressed concern that a rainbow flag in the sixth-year common room had been torn down. That started a conversation,” says the head teacher. “These children didn’t feel supported and it made us realise that we weren’t doing enough to re-inforce pastoral support. The issue disappeared very quickly.

“We called in Fr Jim Lawlor from the Immaculate Conception Church in Maryhill. His church has a mission statement which announces: ‘All are Welcome, None are Judged’. We want St Ninian’s to be known as a school where all are welcome too and where we don’t judge.”

Along the corridor in the school staff room a dozen or so teachers are taking their mid-morning break. Some of them were pupils here and they point to the high number of probationers from the surrounding communities who compete to teach here.

One senior teacher says: “Many of us feel privileged at being able to teach here. It’s become a good ‘career’ school. It’s got a brilliant reputation throughout the west of Scotland and if you ask our pupils what’s special about it they’ll tell you it’s because they have a great relationship with us.”

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Ava Goodwin and Mark Hale, head boy and head girl both agree. “At the end of the year,” says Ms Goodwin, “many of us will be sad to leave. They all say the same thing: could they not just spend another year here.”

In the early 1980s, when a group of former St Ninian’s school football team pupils attended Glasgow University, they’d been surprised to learn that private school pupils seemed to dominate the university’s first XI. And so they established their own team. Thus the Charlie Higgins All Stars was born, named after their much-loved old school football coach. It was their way of maintaining a connection with the school which had made them.