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Full interview: Peterhead Academy head says school is true north-east success story

We addressed YOUR concerns in a wide-ranging interview with Peterhead Academy head teacher Gerry McCluskey.
Calum Petrie
Gerry McCluskey in conversation with The P&J's Calum Petrie. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson
Gerry McCluskey in conversation with The P&J's Calum Petrie. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Looking at the school league tables, parents of pupils at Peterhead Academy would be forgiven for wondering where the school is headed.

The school was ranked bottom among secondary schools in Aberdeenshire, and 66 of 69 across the seven local authorities of the north and north-east of Scotland.

Although the league tables are based on Scottish Government data, their publication is controversial and seen by many as not a sufficient measure of individual schools’ performance.

What do they tell us about Peterhead Academy, Aberdeenshire’s biggest school with almost 1,300 pupils?

As head teacher Gerry McCluskey told The P&J, the school league tables are far from the whole story.

We sat down with Mr McCluskey to put questions to him about:

  • The low league table results
  • Why so many youngsters are leaving after S4
  • And his biggest challenges as head of Peterhead Academy

Here’s what he told us…

‘This is my community’: Peterhead Academy head teacher Gerry McCluskey. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Are there extenuating circumstances which explain Peterhead Academy’s poor showing in the league tables, and if so what are they?

Gerry McCluskey: “First of all, I’d just like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you about this. It would’ve been easy just to write what you see.

“That statistic of five or more Level 6 awards – so Highers and Foundation Apprenticeships and things like that – is just one metric to measure a school on.

“It’s not possible to base an evaluation of the quality of a school, and what happens in a school, just on that one metric.

“In 2023, 35% of our leavers at Peterhead Academy left after S4. That league table only counts qualifications at Level 6 or more. For a pupil who left school at the end of S4, it’s not possible for them to get Level 6 qualifications.

“So the school’s score in this measure comes from the 65% of leavers who left after S5 or S6.

“To give you a comparison, if you take Bearsden Academy in Glasgow, 2% of their leavers cohort are from S4.

Peterhead Academy head teacher Gerry McCluskey said the school is going from ‘strength to strength’. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

“Staying on to S6 provides a greater chance of a higher number of students gaining a higher number of Highers.

“So I think it’s unreasonable to make that comparison.

“This is not a failing school. It’s actually performing well. Our young people who sit qualifications do well in them. We just don’t have as many sitting as many Highers as other schools in that league table.

“It’s worth mentioning that our National 5 results – which aren’t used for these league tables – are improving. Our National 5 attainment has been improving year on year for some time now.”

So why are pupils leaving after S4?

GM: “The percentage of leavers at Peterhead Academy achieving a positive destination after school is 96%.

“That’s the same as the likes of Bearsden Academy. Yes, they’re getting more Highers, but while our young people are leaving school earlier, they’re still moving on to employment, further education, higher education, graduate apprenticeships.

Mr McCluskey with school ambassadors (from left) Zachary Burkill, Brooke McLean, Maja Pepel, Dylan Duffus, Maja Kirszman, Jake Duncan and Reece Birkett. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

“What you also need to take into account is that as a community, we’re almost a self-sustaining economy in Peterhead. We’ve got a lot of opportunities, we’re the biggest town in Aberdeenshire, there’s a lot of businesses, a lot of industries that are very attractive for our young people to go and work at.

“And a lot of those businesses and industries offer the option to study as you learn.

“There are a lot of very well-paid jobs in this area that our young people can access earlier, without having to have Highers.

“At Peterhead Academy we value every young person’s aspiration. Whatever they want to do, we support them to get there.

“Rather than say to a young person: ‘You have to stay on to Sixth Year, you have to do five Highers, our statistics need them’, I’ll say: ‘What do you want to do?’ And we’ll find out what they need for that.

“Attainment is very important, there’s no doubt about that. There’s a reason why the government measures it. I get that. It’s quantifiable.

“But it’s just one part of a much wider picture. Attainment is just one part of a young person’s achievement. And we focus on achievement at Peterhead Academy.

Gerry McCluskey took over as Peterhead Academy head teacher in August 2022. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

“What we focus on and what we value is their aspiration, what they want to do after leaving school.

“If you want to go to university and be a doctor or a lawyer, we’ll support that and we have everything in place to provide that. We had a young man go to Oxford not long ago.

“Almost all our young people who apply to university get in. And not just any university – St Andrew’s, Edinburgh and places like that.

“That shows that our young people can go as high as everyone else can.”

What are you personally, and the school in general, doing to improve Peterhead Academy’s fortunes?

GM: “When I became head teacher in August 2022, one of the first things I did was set up five schools of excellence. Football, dance, science and engineering, home economics, and citizenship.

“I wanted to do something along the lines of the US college system, whereby we give young people the opportunity to do things they love, but to do them, they also need to be pulling their weight academically, have good attendance and so on.

The school of dance is one of five schools of excellence that Mr McCluskey has started at Peterhead Academy. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

“The home economics school of excellence is essentially our school bakery, where we’ve got a partnership with Vegan Bay Baker.

“There’s also a school coffee shop, which is another partnership, with Symposium Coffee. So we’ve got young people learning barista skills there. Not only do they get trained, they get an SQA award.

“With the football, we’ve teamed up with the Aberdeen FC Community Trust, and we’ve got a Widening the Pitch literacy group as well. We also had Paul Third from the Press & Journal come in to talk to some of the young people about journalism.

“And the citizenship school of excellence is great as well. They put forward a motion with Karen Adam MSP, which was put forward for debate in the Scottish Parliament. Two of the pupils, Chloe and Katie, went down to the Scottish Parliament last month to hear the motion being raised.

“As you’ve probably guessed, working with business partners and community partners is really important to me. We’ve worked with 60 in the last two years.

“We’ve had local employers come into the school and speak to the young people about entry points. What they need to do to get which jobs at which level. And they get shown the progression path.

“And vice-versa – we had a group of kids out at Shell St Fergus where they got to see all the different parts of the site. Including the big red button which they weren’t allowed to press because it shuts down the whole establishment!

“This isn’t bog-standard career education like schools have been doing for years. We’re now getting the kids out into businesses and organisations and seeing what they do. They’re starting to generate ambitions, and an idea of what they want to do when they leave school.

Working with local businesses, industries, and community organisations is key to Mr McCluskey’s strategy in taking the school forward. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

“I live in Peterhead. I’ve lived here for 10 years. I understand the community. I love it here. And I know how many different employers we’ve got.

“I want those employers to employ our young people. I want the young people of Peterhead Academy to be the future of industry in this area – if they want to be.

“There are so many good things going on at this school. But I need to be clear, it’s not what I’m doing, it’s what we’re doing. My job is to provide an environment where young people can feel safe and well, and where staff can provide engaging learning experiences.

“All I do is make sure everyone’s got what they need, and that the culture and atmosphere at the school is right.

“I try and place the school at the centre of the community. Almost everybody in this town went to this school, or they know somebody who did, or does. So it should be something we’re all proud of and something we’re all focused on.

“The first thing I try and do, I did it this morning in assembly, is celebrate things. Tell the kids, ‘you’ve done all of this, this is amazing’.

“Society today wants to focus on negative things, but we’ve a lot to celebrate.”

What are the positives of Peterhead Academy at the moment?

‘The positives? The pupils’: School ambassadors (from left) Zachary Burkill, Brooke McLean, Maja Pepel, Maja Kirszman, Dylan Duffus, Jake Duncan and Reece Birkett. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

GM: “The pupils.

“Overall, our attainment is following an improving picture. Particularly at National 5.

Foundation Apprenticeships are a real success story here.

“And positive destinations are as strong as anybody’s in the country. And they’re sustained, that’s the difference.

“The staffs’ commitment in this school is better than anywhere I’ve ever seen. They’re so committed. They offer such a wide range of curricular pathways, and try to make sure that every young person can plot their way through from the broad general education, into the senior phase and beyond school.

“The supported study options the staff offer at lunchtime, after school, during the holidays, they give of their own time. They are so committed.

“And this school must have one of the biggest extra-curricular offerings in the authority. There’s something for everybody here.”

How confident are you that the school has a bright future?

GM: “Very.

“There’s a huge potential in this school and in this town.

“I’m very lucky that I get to work here, because this is my community. This is where I choose to live.

“I’ve got a job that would allow me to travel anywhere, work anywhere. I choose to live and work in Peterhead. This is the only job I was interested in. Because there’s so much potential here and there’s so much going on.

Outside Peterhead Academy. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

“The community is strong, it’s passionate. And that’s why I want our pupils to do well.

“What I say to all our pupils is, make sure that everybody knows where you’re from, what school you go to. Because I’m proud of you, I know how good you are, and everyone else needs to know as well.

“It’s so easy to google a school and the first stories that come up are negative ones. They’re the ones that get the most clicks.

“So I need everybody to hear about the positivity. This is a good school with good things happening.”

What is the biggest challenge for you at the moment as head teacher?

GM: “The biggest challenge for me, and it’s the case across Scotland, is the fact that in certain subjects, teacher numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate.

“So the biggest challenge is maintaining a full curricular offer.

“If you take technology for example, or home economics, we’re now at the point where we almost can’t get teachers. Unless you’re in the central belt, but even there teachers are thin on the ground.

“It’s almost impossible to get anyone to cover maternity leave, for example.

Mr McCluskey said teacher shortages remain an issue. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

“We’re starting to see other subjects dwindling as well, and it’s getting harder and harder to recruit.

“But that is not impacting our performance as a school. As I say, those who sit qualifications are doing well in them.

“I suppose the other thing that’s difficult is that I need to make sure that I maintain momentum, and keep this going. Because that’s what the young people deserve. That’s my job.”

What is rewarding about the job?

GM: “Everything. I really like my job. I’m very lucky.

“I really like this community, that’s why I live here. It’s my type of community. I like the people, I like the kids, I like the parents.

“I really enjoy working with all our business partners because they’re now starting to see just how much potential the school’s got. And I also enjoy it because quite a lot of people who run businesses in this community went to our school and they’ve got an affinity for it.

“I get to see young people move through four, five, six years of school and go on to something successful.

“It’s funny, I’ve been in the north-east since 2008 and I’ve worked in all three of the north-east corner schools: Fraserburgh, Mintlaw and Peterhead. So I taught some of my daughter’s teachers. I bump into pupils that I taught, who are now adults, when I’m out and about.

“It makes me feel old but it also makes me happy because those young people have moved on.

“Some of them are now earning more than me!”

What message do you have for parents who might be concerned at Peterhead Academy’s showing in the league tables?

Mr McCluskey said school league tables were ‘skewed’, and reassured parents of Peterhead Academy’s bright future. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

GM: “It’s important they know that the statistics behind those tables are skewed.

“This school gets more compliments than it gets complaints. We don’t go looking for them, they come in.

“All our young people here get the opportunity to learn, to achieve, to better themselves, and to identify a post-school destination that they like, that they value, and that they’ll sustain. And that’s what it’s all about.

“Because ultimately, when you leave school, school’s not there anymore. You need to be ready to do something that sets you up for life. We like to think that that’s what we do for our young people.

“That might not be getting 90% of them five Highers, but we like to think we’re doing a very good job.

“I put things out to parents saying how well their kids are doing, and they might think I’m being disingenuous. I’m not. It’s the truth.

“This school will go from strength to strength. I know it will.”