Improving Social Justice in Scottish education II

As is widely recognised, secondary education in its current form does not suit all young people and in some cases is not the best way for a young person to achieve their future aspirations.

I was one of those young people.

Throughout my time in mainstream education I struggled in the large educational setting and with all the distractions that came with it. If by the end of a school day I had managed to remain in all my classes, it had been a good day regardless of the amount of work I had or hadn’t completed.

It wasn’t until I left mainstream education to attend Newlands Junior College (NJC) that I understood just how much I struggled in areas such as maintaining concentration, motor skills and what teachers perceived to be a lack of willingness and interest to learn. I would agree that for most young people, secondary schools get it right, however there are still far too many young people who slip through the cracks.

Personally I never aspired to go to university, however if I had remained at school I wouldn’t have even had the choice. The chances are I would have left with little or no qualifications and would have went through life with no hope of ever having a successful future. This was also the case for a majority of the 108 other pupils who attended Newlands Junior College over the four full years it was open, 92% of whom that either left once they turned 16 or remained at NJC until their graduation went onto a “positive destination”. Every one of these young people were disengaged with their education and in many cases had stopped attending school all together.

Take, for example, my friend John.

John was suspended from school multiple times and in the end gave up attending school completely, for a period of around 16 months.   John started his time at NJC at the same time as I did. He achieved 100% attendance in the two years he spent there, achieving qualifications from college in Engineering, Construction, Light Vehicle Mechanics and Business administration as well as in his academic subjects.  Now John has just begun an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer.

Upon reflection of my time in the conventional senior phase of education I realise that this setting was exasperating the issues that I previously mentioned I was experiencing on a daily basis. My parents had raised concern to every primary and most secondary teachers however no additional support was put in place nor was I ever referred to an educational psychologist.  Whilst teachers agreed that I was fidgeting and getting distracted very easily, not one ever highlighted the fact I was showing signs of having additional support needs.

When my new teachers did raise these concerns with myself and my parents everything began to make sense.

The first two or three months of my time in this different model of education had a massive effect on me, my self-confidence grew rapidly, and my academic abilities flourished. I began to contribute to society outside of education. I joined a political party and began to get involved with youth organisations and groups which eventually led to me being elected as a member of both the Scottish and UK Youth Parliaments. It didn’t take long in our transition before the new pupils including myself became eager about our learning and began to enjoy our education, whereas before it felt like an uphill battle or an impossible chore.

So, what actually was Newlands Junior College?

In this model of education teachers had the freedom to personalise lessons to suit each pupils needs and abilities. It also allowed young people who were not pursuing a university place to focus on vocational subjects alongside their academic studies that would benefit their future careers. These additional vocational subjects were provided by working in partnership with the cities established Further Education facilities and training centres such as City of Glasgow College, Arnold Clarks GTG Training and regular work experience.

This way of learning shows how young people who do not enjoy the academic subjects at school can flourish when given the choice to study subjects suited to their interests and ones they believe will actually prepare them for the careers they were perusing

Had most of these young people maintained their course through the conventional education system they would never have gained access to Further Education courses or have had the chance to gain experience in trades before applying for apprenticeships or continuing their further educational courses.

Schools were asked to nominate students just about to finish their 2ndor 3rdyear in their senior phase of education who did not seem to be getting the best out of their education however still showed signs of potential. The college was designed to help those furthest from employment, young people lost from the education system, destined to end up unemployed at 16, without hope for a positive future. Students were more likely to end up in the care of the justice system than at college, university, or in an apprenticeship.

Newlands prepared them for jobs and college through a vocationally focused educational experience, aimed at developing their confidence, skills and talents.Whilst NJC did not positively discriminate towards any key characteristics, each year around 70% of students came from homes within SIMD1 highlighting the direct correlation between attainment and social class. Additionally a significant number of students were care experienced.
If local authorities across Scotland were to create their own junior colleges, similar to the model of NJC not only would they be an outstanding resource for young people across Scotland but it would also save money in other areas such as social work, criminal justice and other interventions currently in place that are not having the desired impact on the young people they were setup to support.

Two years ago this month, I was just about to start my journey in a new learning environment, I had no belief in myself or my future. My future prospects did not look great. I had become disenfranchised from my education, peers and even my family.

Two years later having completed my time in this innovative style of education I’m a completely different person, In employment on the career path to the job of my dreams and whilst no, I did not achieve the coveted five Highers, NJC was not designed for that and nor was I.

Just because this model of education does not top some journalist’s school league table it does not mean this form of education should be disregarded. Without fresh bold ideas a significant number of young people will continue to fall through the cracks for years to come.

Ross McArthur was speaking in personal capacity about his successful experience following an innovative personalised curriculum at Newlands Junior College. NJC closed its doors at the start of 2019. It existed in a partnership model with direct Scottish Government funding, funding from Glasgow City council and private money. HMI inspected the College not long after it opened. 

Click to access newlandsjnrcollegeins271015.pdf

News reports

SEAS is supportive of innovative personalised Senior Phase with schools and authorities working across communities. Like Ross we think that  schools, employers and colleges working together can offer better Senior Phase provision.  


Improving Social Justice in Scottish education I

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It was a pleasure to be asked to speak at the SEAS Improving Social Justice in Scottish Education event on Saturday 17th August. Thanks to all who came along and spent their Saturday morning listening and engaging with some of my research into subject choice. Thanks particularly to Bill Butler, SEAS Convenor,  for having me along and to Ross McArthur, who gave a fantastic presentation on his experience within a ‘different kind of senior phase’.
My presentation focused upon senior phase subject choices and how these have changed under the Curriculum for Excellence, why the number of subject choices available has narrowed and some of the opportunities that have also arisen as a result of the reforms.
The subject choices process is incredibly important for a plethora of reasons. Firstly, it begins to streamline the opportunities that will be available to young people upon leaving school. They allow specialisation in pursuit of a certain pathway for young people – whether that be an apprenticeship, a certain job or career or a course in further or higher education. Further, each stage of choices also potentially limits the next set, which means that each stage of subject selection carries profound importance to the person making their learning decisions. Perhaps most importantly, the choices process should allow for a young person to have a balanced curriculum with adequate breadth and depth to allow them to fulfil their potential and become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors as the Curriculum for Excellence succinctly describes.
There is a decent literature concerning choices and what influences young people going through the process. Broadly these are –
  • Social Influence of teachers, peers and parents
  • Motivations – the balance between what subjects young people find useful, enjoyable and  difficult
  • Perceptions of the self, and the schools’ perception of the pupils
  • Governance and Policy – what actual choices are available is dictated by policy at all levels
Though it is important to note that all four themes are heavily influenced by socio-economic background of the individual pupil and the school that they attend. My presentation at the event focused primarily upon governance and policy in Scotland. I thought I would take the opportunity to share the presentation, which can be accessed here –
Perhaps of particular interest is new research which shows the correlation
between average entries to SQA qualifications and Free School Meals in the Greater Glasgow region.
I have written about the other influences here –
Thanks again to SEAS for having me along and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on anything mentioned. You can get me by email at or on Twitter @BarryBlackNE.