Reform Scotland

Dunoon Grammar: An education success story – Gillian Hunt

At a time when there only seems to be bad news about schools and education in the media, the need to find out what is working, explore success models, ask questions, evaluate and learn is all the more important.

Dunoon Grammar School (DGS) is one such success story. In 2022 the school won the T4 Education prize for being the best school in the world for community engagement.

I wrote about the school in my report, ‘High Dunoon’ which was published by Reform Scotland in May 2023 and then featured in the Scotsman and the Oban Times.  I am now delighted that tonight, Tuesday 6 February, there will be a Members’ Debate in Parliament celebrating the work of Dunoon Grammar School and its approach to collaboration with their immediate and wider community.  It is clear that Dunoon Grammar School demonstrates that a school can be the heart of, and make a significant difference to, its community.  Lessons can be learned throughout Scotland from the successful partnership between Dunoon Grammar School and Argyll and Bute Council. 

The foreword of my report noted that, “in a Dunoon context the word “community” is widely cast…an exemplary environment for young people to learn, grow, find future opportunities, and contribute their own ideas.  Teachers are encouraged to think for themselves, and take an “outward looking” approach to their job.  External partners in the public, third and private sectors have become part of the DGS family.  At the heart of all this is head teacher David Mitchell, who emerges as a local hero.  A former DGS pupil himself, he has returned to the school and driven a revolution in culture and environment, one that has allowed staff and pupils to flower.”

Two examples of Dunoon Grammar’s community approach are the Dunoon Project and their newly acquired derelict toy library building. 

The Dunoon Project is a public, private and community venture which the school is at the heart of. The project aims to attract visitors, create employment and boost the wider economy through plans for a cable car from the sea to Kilbride Hill, a café, zip-wire and a world-class mountain bike trail. One of its two advisory boards comprises DGS students of all ages. Brendon Wallace, one of the Directors, sees the importance of collaboration with the school. The community wants to see young people stay in the town and increase its population, which the project will help to achieve.

 The empty toy library, owned by the local authority, which sat just outside the school has become part of the school’s footprint with plans for it becoming a new community building and garden, for example adult learning classes delivered by young people, a garden run by the school’s Learning Centre and a community café where young people can learn skills for future life. The main challenge for the school is financing the creation of this exciting new facility and ensuring that it is sustainable moving forward. 

 Much of what happens at DGS happens in other schools. However, there is pervading belief, which manifests into action, that everybody in the school and its community does whatever it takes to enable their children and young people to thrive. The school is at the heart of the community and it is Head Teacher, David Mitchell who has made this happen.  He has empowered all in the school to do this alongside him. Everyone has permission to act, knowing that David has their back.  This is also true of Argyll and Bute Council: David is able to act in the best interests of the school and its community and they have his back.

Dunoon’s success is also evident in its statistics.  Positive destinations stand at 98.11%, above that of their virtual comparator, Argyll and Bute, the Northern Alliance and the National Establishment.  Attainment is going up year on year, although like other schools the pandemic has had an impact.  Involvement in a pilot addressing non-attendance (ANA), developed by the Educational Psychology team to support schools to identify specific reasons for non-attendance, is enabling appropriate interventions to be implemented to support attendance and allows for strong partnerships with outside agencies that support young people and their families.  Procedures have been introduced to keep the exclusion rate down with staff following an intervention package to ensure the needs of the young people are met.

It is of note that what is happening at Dunoon Grammar happens without additional resources or special measures or permissions.  If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.  And there are some key messages for others about the school’s approach: challenge thinking and norms; empower pupils, staff, parents and partners, allow all to lead, and support them to take risks; listen to success stories and learn from them; invite your community into your school, ask for their help and be committed to helping your community to grow and develop; engender in everyone a feeling of belonging to the school; and allow your school to be an asset for its community.

Despite its success, Dunoon Grammar School still faces challenges, like all other schools, such as equity to education, ensuring vulnerable pupils have access to relevant resources, young people’s mental health, teacher shortage and of course budget constraints. However, even with these challenges, DGS continues to offer young people the best possible learning experience.

Empowered head teachers and schools, like Dunoon Gramma School are exactly what Scottish education needs if the problems within our system are to be replaced with solutions.  We need to explore innovative models: talk about them and learn from them to support schools and local authorities to thrive.

In the debate I hope that MSPs will consider what the relationship be between a school and its community should be, and that if we want the community in the school what we need to do to make that happen. They should also consider the kind of leadership a school needs to operate in the way DGS operates and how that can be grown and supported.  We know that schools and the public sector cannot do it all alone so consideration needs to be given to the supportive role that can be played by the third and private sectors.  It would be helpful to think about the barriers to collaboration and how local authorities and schools can be supported to overcome these.

Gillian Hunt is an educational consultant and former teacher.
The Official Report from the Members’ Debate on Tuesday 6 February can be read here.