Testing times at Peterhead Academy

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Aberdeenshire councillors bombarded Peterhead Academy’s head teacher with questions about his school’s worsening exam results at a committee meeting last week.

Peterhead is now in the lowest 10 percent of schools in the country in attainment at the crucial S4 level.

Figures for 2012/13 show the percentage of pupils achieving five or more Intermediate 2 awards by the end of S4 has fallen to 17 percent. The national average is 38 percent.

Evan Ritchie went before the Buchan Area Committee last Tuesday as part of a routine discussion of attainment.

He was joined by Mintlaw Academy head teacher Alan Horberry, whose school is also below the national average, but the councillors reserved their toughest questions for Mr Ritchie.

Independent councillor for Peterhead North and Rattray Alan Buchan described the figures as “extremely disappointing”.

He said: “I’ve sat here on this committee for six or seven years and the statistics aren’t getting better.

“They’re getting worse. We badly need a change - whatever can be done.

“These pupils shouldn’t have to go into further education to get these qualifications. They should get them at school.”

Since 2011, Peterhead has fallen from 27 percent of S4 students hitting the five award target to 23 percent in 2012 and 17 percent last year.

In comparison, the national average has risen from 36 to 38 percent in the same period.

But Mr Ritchie said he hopes to see an improvement soon and that “raising attainment is top of our agenda”.

The figures came from a report by Aberdeenshire Council’s director of education, learning and leisure, Maria Walker. Not all the figures presented were negative - the report showed some improvement at S5 and S6 levels, and significant improvements in Higher results which put Peterhead Academy above the national average.

Mrs Walker noted the statistics do not take into account wider achievement beyond SQA exams, such as qualifications earned as part of college partnerships.

However the committee stressed that the figures for S4 were the most damning - unlike S5 and S6, every pupil in the country sits exams at this age making for the clearest comparison regionally, nationally and between ‘comparator schools’.

To provide more nuanced analysis of the findings, the report places each school alongside 20 schools with ‘similar socio-economic characteristics’. In the crucial category of S4 students achieving at least five Intermediate 2 awards by the year of their fourth year, the national, regional and comparator percentage is 38. By comparison only 17 percent of Peterhead Academy pupils are at this level.

Mintlaw Academy falls into a separate basket of comparable schools. While comparators saw 41 percent of their students achieve five or more awards, Mr Horberry only saw 29 percent of his pupils get to this level. SNP councillor for Central Buchan Jim Ingram quizzed the head teachers about the quality of their staff.

He said: “I’m aware there may still be a problem retaining staff. If you can’t retain quality staff, you won’t get improved figures.”

Mr Ritchie responded: “All is being done to retain staff and get quality staff into these positions.”

After the meeting, SNP councillor for Peterhead South and Cruden Stephen Smith sought for positives in the report. He told the Buchanie: “There’s no escaping the fact that these figures are disappointing and the council as education authority needs to support pupils and staff to turn that around.

“It’s important though to give recognition where recognition is due and certainly on the occasions when I’ve attended concerts and events put on by the pupils, the standards there have been extremely high in terms of musical skills and performing arts.

“This is important as it gives the pupils confidence and confident learners can achieve so much more.

“So, there are many positives, but there is no getting away from the fact that academic results need to improve to give pupils the best possible life chances.”

Following the Area Committee meeting, councillors held an informal meeting with Mr Ritchie and his staff at the academy which is currently undergoing an HMIe inspection. The council hope to organise a similar session with Mr Horberry and his colleagues. The figures included in the report are based on pre-appeals data for Mintlaw and Peterhead academies. The scope is restricted to SQA exams, sat predominantly by S4, S5 and S6 students.

This is the final year the government will release figures in this current form because of the imminent introduction of the new national qualifications.