Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal officially opened Alness Academy and as part of her visit toured the first-class facilities being enjoyed by pupils, staff and the local community.
The school, which provides a modern 21st century learning environment that reflects the quality of the teaching staff and aspirations of the young people, has been delivered by the Highland Council working in partnership with Hub North Scotland and Kier Construction.
On arrival HRH was met by the Lord-Lieutenant for Ross and Cromarty, Skye and Lochalsh, Mrs Joanie Whiteford who introduced Head Teacher Craig Paterson and Depute Head Teachers Catherine Brown and Donald MacRae as well as the school’s two Head Students, Marisska Slupek and Maria Mackay before staring a tour.
The visit, which adhered to all Covid social distancing requirements, fell on an In-Service day but HRH was able to meet many of the staff and pupils and hear from them how they have settled in and thrived in their new school, which opened its doors to pupils in October last year.
The building has been designed for complete flexibility with a sports block housing a 4 court games hall, gymnasium and 6 lane 25m pool for shared community use, and a linked two-storey main teaching block.
After a visit to the Pupil Support base HRH was shown the swimming pool and had the chance to speak to pupil and lifeguard Katie Brown before watching a gymnastic display in the games hall and meeting S4 pupil Anya Munro who has been participating in gymnastics since she was 4 years old.
The L-shaped teaching block has 14 general teaching classrooms, 6 science labs and other associated science facilities, 3 arts and ceramic classrooms, technologies and business classrooms and workshops, music and drama classrooms/practice rooms, a hair and beauty salon, a traditional teaching kitchen and a number of dedicated Social, Emotional Behavioural and Additional Support Needs facilities.
The tour of the block started in the Support for Learning Department where HRH spoke to Principal Teacher Claire Nixon about the assistance being provided to pupils with additional support needs and met Pupil Support Assistant Alice Sutherland who runs a life skills programme teaching pupils general cooking and baking in the dedicated special kitchen classroom. HRH then was invited to view the outdoor picnic area that includes the “Hungry Hut” and see the space where a garden with vegetable beds is being developed by young people.
HRH was then led upstairs to the Learning Plaza in the English and Languages Department.
The classrooms and breakout areas wrap around a double height assembly, dining, and drama space with a central open plan learning resource centre.
Generous glazing and rooflights bring lots of natural light and ventilation into the heart of the building with the upstairs plaza providing a great view.
Principal Teacher of English Lesley McCallum talked about the work undertaken by the department in particular around closing the attainment gap and how the improved Higher and National 5 English exam results are reflecting this.
HRH also met Language Teacher Angela Schnier-Macrae who has successfully introduced Spanish in addition to French at National 5 and Higher level as well as Advanced Higher French.
The next stop was to the Maths Department where pupil Daniel Adams, an avid young mathematician, was waiting to talk about his role over the last few years assisting pupils who need more help and passing on his skills and great enthusiasm for maths.
Fittingly Daniel has secured a place at university to study to become a secondary school maths teacher.
After a visit to the History Department HRH was shown around the Art Room where creative products produced by pupils were on display before she went on to the Geography Department.
Here long-serving teacher Janet MacDonald introduced her border collie dog and the school’s therapy pet Bru.
Joining them was S1 pupil Charlotte Waugh who explained how delighted she is to be physically at school after having to do her first year of learning remotely at home.
The Science team at Alness Academy are especially proud of their achievements and Teacher David Eadie, who has worked at Alness Academy since 2004, was joined by pupil Keir Bird to talk to HRH about the work of the department and how Kier’s passion for science has led to him achieving a place at Glasgow University to study Biochemistry.
Back on the ground level of the school there was a visit to the Business Department to meet Business and ICT Teacher Alan Corbett who explained how he has managed to grow and expand the department to become one of the most successful in the school, with students achieving record exam results last year.
Pupil Charlotte Paterson echoed what he said, explaining how she has started a small business with a friend and plans to go on to study International Business Management at Robert Gordon University.
It was then a visit to the Technical Department to view some of the products made by the pupils and to meet Principal Teacher Tracy Robertson and pupil Adrian Peterwas.
With a background in community work and design, Tracy spoke to HRH about her role in developed the curriculum to help the young people’s career prospects, skills and particularly apprenticeships in trades and practical jobs.
She explained that the new courses in furniture craft, and construction are giving pupils with all abilities the chance to prosper and gain skills to help them into employment.
Adrian Peterwas added that his favourite subjects are Business and Construction, Metalwork and Woodwork and one of the things he is proud of is being invited to Tain Royal Academy to represent the school and talk about the new construction course that is being offered in the area.
Following this, HRH was shown around the Hair and Beauty Salon to view the excellent facilities before paying a visit to the Flexible Learning Academy to meet the team providing special support to pupils.
Children’s Service worker Ann Marie Dinneen took the opportunity to highlight the support the school provides to young people and their families in school, at home, and in the local community.
Ann Marie explained how the team liaises regularly with families to check-in and offer support. In particular, how, during the first lockdown, they worked together to cook and deliver weekly meals to vulnerable families, as part of keeping connected to the young people.
Pupil James Forsyth talked to HRH about the support and encouragement he has received during his time at school.
James is part of the school’s Family Support Group and over the years has helped fund raise by making and selling soup to staff, with the proceeds raised going into a special family hardship fund.
Literacy and Numeracy Teacher Daisy Burnside talked about the successful project to support learners in S1-3 with their literacy and numeracy skills to enable them to access the curriculum.
Attainment results so far show a drastic impact on the literacy and numeracy abilities, strengthening family life and school improvement.
She then went on to mention some specific success stories, with 14-year-old Connor Grant joining in to talk about his favourite subjects and how improving his reading and spelling skills has given him more confidence.
The final part of the visit was held outside where pupils and staff were gathered.
HRH was treated to fiddle music performed by Monty McMyn, a poem read by Kady Lyon and a dance performance by Brooke McLeay and Ryan Sutherland.
HRH was then invited to unveil a plaque before Alexsandra Olensinka presented her with a gift of a drawing and Daniel Adams presented a posy.
As HRH departed young piper Sam MacKenzie played.
Speaking after HRH had departed Head Teacher Craig Paterson said:
“It has been a huge honour for us to have HRH visit the school and officially open the new building.
“Our move to a brand-new building really emphasises the positive journey that Alness Academy is on and we are delighted for the school to be opened by a member of the Royal Family.”
Depute Head Teacher Mrs Catherine Brown, the longest serving member of Alness Academy’s senior management team who escorted HRH around the school added:
“I am so proud of all our staff and pupils for their ongoing resilience through enormous change so it was great to be able to have this opportunity to highlight all the terrific work going on in our school to raise attainment as well as supporting the wellbeing of all our pupils, and encouraging everyone to be the best they can.
“HRH heard about the work we do to provide quality work-related experiences and the benefits we are seeing from the literacy and numeracy project we have in place.
“There was a lot to cover during the visit and what came across the most was how embedded in the community the new school already is and the very positive ethos we have to be inclusive and provide the best opportunities for everyone.”
After the opening ceremony, speaking on behalf of the Cromarty Ward Members, Councillor Carolyn Wilson said:
“This is a proud day for the whole community.
“We’ve waited for a new school for a very long time.
“The Princess Royal, in her address, acknowledged not only what a magnificent building the new school is but also how it is giving our young people the very best opportunities to achieve and make the most of their time in education and will be doing so for many generations to come.
Councillor Pauline Munro, a former pupil at Alness Academy, added:
“Due to Covid the celebrations had to be scaled back, but I want to particularly thank the staff for pulling out all the stops and making the visit such a success.
“It really showcased the school and everything the staff and the pupils are achieving.”