ONLY a few minutes have elapsed since I walked through its doors and I begin to see why Dunoon Grammar has been rated Best School in the World.

I’m greeted warmly by Paul Gallanagh, head of Business and Computing. Soon, we meet Christopher, who has Down syndrome, looking smart in his school uniform. The young man is about to head off to his class but not before he tells Paul he’s feeling great and exchanges a high-five with him.

There’s a twinkle in his eye and a tear in mine and I’m hoping that no one’s noticed. I hadn’t expected to feel like this and tell myself to get my act together. Alarmingly, it will happen a few more times in the course of my visit. This is how journalists’ hard reputations get shredded, for heaven’s sake.

Nor is there any sentimentality here. Many schools across Scotland welcome children with a wide spectrum of social challenges, but there’s something else going on that looks – and feels – a lot like love. It permeates these corridors.

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Every pupil we encounter is greeted warmly by their first name and a bit of back and forth ensues. “Did you get that injury sorted?” “How did that event at the weekend go?” “Will you be at the practice tonight?” “Haw, Sur!”

Later, we meet Christopher Campbell again in the school’s Learning Centre, resplendent in his Hulk suit which he’s preparing for Halloween. Next door there’s a fully-functioning hairdressing salon and further along a beauty parlour. At the end of the corridor there’s a mini-garden centre.

This department is key to much of what Dunoon Grammar does well. Every pupil is deemed to be special and to have gifts. The teachers consider it their duty to ensure that no avenue is left unexplored to help them gain employment and enjoy the best possible start to their adult life.

There’s nothing forced about these exchanges; no hint of stilted jollity. Boundaries are still observed but in all of them evidence that these pupils know they’re cared for by teachers who are giving the best of themselves.

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When it was announced last month that Dunoon Grammar had won the coveted T4 Education World’s Best School Prize for community collaboration the entire town celebrated. They’d beaten off stiff competition from schools in Brazil and India in the final round from an initial entry of thousands.

Seeing their school crowned Best in the World has brought great joy to this community. Paul tells me that when the award was announced the school began receiving messages from former pupils scattered across the world and the UK.

Vikas Pota, founder of the T4 World’s Best School Awards had outlined just why Dunoon Grammar deserved to win. “It’s time for world leaders to sit up and listen to institutions like this outstanding UK school.

“Far too many children will continue to be left behind in the wake of Covid unless governments take urgent action to tackle the education crisis. As a first step they must turn to the knowledge and experience contained within our schools because those on the front lines of education know better than anyone else the change we need to see.”

THERE’S community engagement and then there’s what Dunoon Grammar does. The head teacher, David Mitchell – a former pupil here – is driven by a desire to restore pride and aspiration in the town by reversing the migration of young people which saps life from Scotland’s islands and rural communities.

An astonishing array of projects are underway connecting the school to this island town on the Cowal peninsula, just a 15-minute ferry journey from Gourock. All of them are designed to give the pupils the sense that if their town is to thrive once more they will have a significant part to play in shaping its future.

David is driven by this mission to improve the life chances of all his pupils but also to kindle in them a desire to plan their futures in the town. “When I first started here,” he said, “I wanted to develop a curriculum where work and knowledge were intertwined. This fed into pupils doing whole-day work placements with our Exit Into Employment programme. This was especially good for pupils who had maybe disengaged from learning.”

He feels that Scotland is experiencing a rebirth of its former global reputation for educational quality. “The principals of the Curriculum for Excellence are sound and we, along with many other schools, are currently engaged in a national discussion around Scottish education.”

You sense that a quiet revolution is underway in Scotland’s schools and that they are adopting a radical approach to ensuring not just the best educational outcomes for their pupils but that they become a support hub for their towns and villages.

“We want to develop a curriculum that supports a local need, not just educationally but emotionally. Our pupils are involved in the Dunoon Project, which takes community collaboration to another level.

Dunoon, like many other such towns in Scotland’s islands and rural neighbourhoods, have faced serious issues associated with infrastructure, depopulation and deprivation. Paul Gallanagh tells me Dunoon is Scotland in miniature, but where social challenges are aggravated perhaps by being physically cut off from the main centres of population.

Once, it had been a vibrant holiday hub, offering jobs in hospitality and leisure. This was at its height when American servicemen arrived in 1961 and were garrisoned here for 30 years as Dunoon became the home port of a US Submarine squadron. Their departure left a massive hole in the town’s economic infrastructure. David feels that the school can play a significant part in filling that hole.

“The Dunoon Project leaders have taken something of a risk by asking our young people to play a big part in this. It’s about what Dunoon will look like in the future.

The Project gives our children an opportunity to plan their own futures by engaging with the future of the town. It’s revolutionary, but simple. We must take risks and learn, even when things don’t work. For the community to believe in the school, the school must believe in the community.”

So, what do the pupils think? Four of them, Yair Dgany, Alasdair Coy, Sarah Nimmo and Skye Kilgallon have been dispatched to meet me. There’s no agenda and I’ve not been asked for advance notice of my questions.

Yair and Sarah have no hesitation in saying that they want to live and work in Dunoon when they complete their education. “There are lots of opportunities opening up in the town,” says Yair, “and it’s been great to get involved in the Dunoon Project and play a part in its future.”

Sarah adds: “All of us feel supported by our teachers. It’s not just about exams; it’s about caring for us as individuals with different gifts and hopes.”

Skye wants to be an actor and is already signed up by an agency who’d been impressed by her Zoom presentation during lockdown. She’s confident, smart and joyously unaffected. “I love my school,” she says. “I can honestly say I look forward to being here every day.”

Alasdair wants to be a diplomat and hopes to study at St Andrews. Being west of Scottish, I start thinking about the obstacles. The diplomatic corps is almost exclusively reserved to Oxbridge.

But I’m caught up in the effervescent, can-do attitude of this school and know that this lad can be whatever he wants to be. And so I suggest that when the First Minister comes to visit in a few weeks’ time, he gets in front of her and asks for her assistance.

“She’s got the best contacts book in the land,” I tell him, “she’ll see that you’re sorted.”

He’s pushing at an open door here. Paul Gallanagh tells me that he and other pupils had been invited to Holyrood to meet her and attend First Minister’s Questions. She’d taken them up to her office; hugged them all and sent a smartphone birthday video message to a startled dad, wishing him a happy 50th birthday.

In the school dining-room I meet Lucian with the audacious specs who breenges up and asks me what I’m doing here. We chat about the news and he deploys the word anomalous in its proper context while I’m struggling to catch up. I promise him a shout-out; so there you go Lucian. You look after yourself, big chap.

They’re a credit to their school and their school is a credit to Scotland.