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Full interview: ‘We do everything we can’ on bullying, says Inverurie Academy head

We addressed YOUR concerns in a wide-ranging interview with Inverurie Academy head teacher Neil Hendry.
Calum Petrie
Neil Hendry sat down with The P&J's Calum Petrie. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson
Neil Hendry sat down with The P&J's Calum Petrie. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Inverurie Academy has hit the headlines in recent months over reports of serious bullying at the school.

However, head teacher Neil Hendry denied the school has a bullying problem, and said it’s “just like any other secondary school.”

In a wide-ranging interview with The P&J, Mr Hendry painted a positive picture of the school amid an ongoing teacher shortage crisis in the north-east, the mental health impact of the pandemic, and having to prepare youngsters for life in a “more complex” world.

We sat down with Mr Hendry as he nears the end of his second full year as head at Inverurie Academy. He told us about:

  • The school’s ‘hidden curriculum’
  • The truth behind school league tables
  • How Inverurie Academy tackles bullying
  • Recovering from the pandemic
  • Surviving the teacher shortage crisis
  • The challenge of running a 1,300-pupil school
  • The future of Inverurie Academy
Inverurie Academy head teacher Neil Hendry. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

You took over as head at Inverurie Academy two and a half years ago. What has been achieved in that time?

“The school had been on a huge journey prior to me arriving. But as a school, attainment and achievement continues to rise.

“Our attainment figures are strong. I’m not a huge advocate of league tables, but if you want to look at league tables, we sit comfortably within the top 100 in Scotland. Most of our figures are above comparative schools.

“So actually, as far as academic attainment is concerned – and we’ve to continue that journey – we’re strong there.

“Inverurie Academy has always had a huge ‘hidden curriculum’, so the extra-curricular things, and that continues to drive our work.

“Whether it’s sports, arts, sciences, you know, we run a very successful Duke of Edinburgh programme. It’s about giving our young people that experience in a totality.

“Attainment is important to us, as it should be for all schools, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

Inverurie Academy has 1,300 pupils, and continues to grow. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“And in fact, one of the things I say to the young people is that our job is to produce good people first and foremost.

“So when they come to the end of their education process, we want them to be good at life.

“Now, ‘good at life’ is different for each person. Academic success is important to that, but success looks different for different people.

“We’re a big school, 1,300 pupils and we continue to grow.

“With that size comes increased opportunities, more availability, and we’re also very fortunate to be sitting in this amazing new community campus which again, gives us opportunities which you might not get in an older building.”

You mentioned attainment, and school league tables. Inverurie Academy came 11/17 in Aberdeenshire in our school league tables. The percentage of leavers gaining five Highers (or equivalent qualification) – Level 6 qualifications – is 35%, down 11% on the previous year, which is the biggest drop in Aberdeenshire. What are your thoughts on that?

“If you look at our ‘five at Level 6’ figures, we have a high number of Fifth Years who leave school at the end of fifth year.

“Now, they all leave school after fifth year and go on to positive destinations. They leave school at the end of fifth year with three Highers or four Highers. If they stayed for a sixth year, they would get additional Highers.

Mr Hendry thinks league tables are ‘out of date’, and points to the school’s positive destination rate of 98%. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“These figures are based on when they leave. So actually, I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘I really want these Fifth Years to stay for another year just to get my ‘five at Level 6’ figure up.’

“Because actually, it’s the right decision for them as young people to move on. Our positive destination figure sits at 98%.

“I think the measure they use for those league tables is probably out of date. Foundation Apprenticeships aren’t factored in, for example.

“Positive destinations is about producing good young people who are ready to be successful, whatever that next stage of their life is.”

You were previously head teacher at Northfield and Lochside, where you were the new school’s first head. How different is it being head at a school in Aberdeenshire, compared to the city? What lessons have you taken from Northfield and Lochside?

“I had very positive experiences at both.

“My time at Northfield was a fantastic five years, and there will always be a part of me at Northfield Academy. So I really enjoyed my time at Northfield.

“I then had the opportunity to bring Kincorth and Lochside together, working with the developers and the local authority to get the build finished at Lochside. So that was a challenge, but I really enjoyed that as well.

“I still have contact with ex-pupils at Northfield – some of them now work here!

Neil Hendry was previously head teacher at Northfield Academy and Lochside Academy. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“Young people are the same whichever school you go into.

“What attracted me to Inverurie was that, where this community campus is, it’s bang in the middle of a thriving town.

“It works both ways – the ripple you get from the community, and the ripple you can give to the community, is significant.

“The location of Lochside will always be a challenge, whereas with Inverurie, the real driver, the thing that really attracted me to come here, is that Inverurie is a town that looks after its own community very well, and the school benefits from that.

“We have partners who do a variety of different things for us and give us other dimensions to the curriculum.

“But it’s the fact that we’re bang in the middle of the town that gives it that connectivity.

“Lots of our families and young people come here in the evenings to enjoy the facilities.

“But I have to say, young people are still the same as they were when I started teaching 30 years ago.

“The world’s become more complex, but young people are still striving to be successful. That doesn’t change, whether you’re at Northfield, Lochside or Inverurie Academy.”

Neil Hendry. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

I’ve published a couple of articles about quite serious bullying at Inverurie Academy, including one where a child’s parents pulled them out of the school, and another where a pupil said they’d “never felt safe” at the school. Several parents reacted to those articles, saying they didn’t think bullying was taken seriously and that the school has a problem. Inverurie Academy has been accused of having a ‘culture of bullying’. What do you say to that?

“There is absolutely no doubt that we take every incident of bullying seriously, and it’s dealt with.

“Obviously you’re not expecting me to respond to those individual cases, but actually, we are confident that they were dealt with and the families were supported.

“We do everything we can. Bullying happens in all schools. Aberdeenshire has a clear policy and we follow that.

“We have a really strong pastoral care team here who support young people. We work closely with families.

“But we deal with every individual case on its merits, and support the family and the young person through the process.”

Those two articles we published were only two incidents which have gone to press. I’ve heard from other parents, and people who have reacted to those stories. Do you recognise that Inverurie Academy has a bullying problem?

“I think you would need to quantify what you class as a bullying problem, compared to any other big secondary school.

“I think you have to be careful, you know, when you put an article on Facebook, the silent majority don’t respond.

“There may be some frustrations, and those frustrations are aired, but again, if people reach out to us, we support them appropriately.”

Mr Hendry denied Inverurie Academy has a bullying problem. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

What I mean by “bullying problem” is a high volume of reported bullying incidents. Are you saying that there’s not a high volume of reported bullying incidents at Inverurie Academy?

“No, it would be just like any other secondary school.”

One thing parents will want to know is how bullying is dealt with at Inverurie Academy. A complaint I get from parents – not just from Inverurie Academy – is that they’re fobbed off with a bunch of jargon about ‘policies’ and ‘procedures’, and they’re none the wiser about what is actually being done. Can you tell parents what is being done to improve things when it comes to bullying at Inverurie Academy?

“Well first of all, we speak directly with families. That’s really key.

“So there would be meetings arranged with staff and with the families to actually sit down, and unpick what’s happening.

“And then, you put a plan together, and part of that plan is you revisit it.

“No school has a magic wand that suddenly fixes things. So you need to keep going back and reviewing and reviewing and reviewing.

“And I could – but won’t – give a number of cases where we did exactly that and things improved, and parents would be able to tell you that.

“But it’s about the actions you take. There needs to be a real understanding of what’s happening, why it’s happening, what we can do to support, and that includes working with both sides, so the people who are the aggressors as well. It’s about working with families to pull it together.”

In a letter to parents in 2022, Education Scotland said Inverurie Academy had “experienced significant impact from Covid”. I’ve spoken to head teachers who say the pandemic is having an ongoing effect on things like pupil behaviour. How has the school recovered from Covid, and what is the legacy of the pandemic?

‘Young people’s mental health and wellbeing has become more and more of a focus’ since the pandemic, Mr Hendry said. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“The legacy of the pandemic across the UK has been, well, it’s about the mental health of a lot of young people.

“And that’s part of the challenge. As a school, we have a huge number of supports in place to support young people with their mental health.

“I mean, we had almost two years when young people didn’t come to school.

“So depending on the effectiveness of your online learning and your ability to access the online learning, some young people will have gaps.

“I think we’re in quite a fortunate position in that academically we seem to continue to perform pretty well. But that doesn’t mean to say that some of our young people don’t have gaps because of Covid.

“I would have to say, I think Covid has affected a number of people as we’ve come back to, in inverted commas, ‘normal’. It’s been challenging for some young people to get back into school. It has been a challenge.

“I would say mental health has been the main thing. Young people’s mental health and wellbeing has become more and more of a focus.”

Have you noticed a difference in behaviour since the pandemic? One head teacher told me they had absolutely noticed a difference in pupil behaviour and maturity post-pandemic. For example, they thought the new S1 intakes were noticeably less mature than pre-Covid.

“Part of me thinks that’s maybe easy to point at Covid.

“The First Years that joined us last year were actually a really very strong group, well-behaved, very positive, involved in a lot of stuff around the school.

“I think we’ve always had peaks and troughs. You might have a first year cohort coming in who have different challenges to the previous cohort.

“Academically you have peaks and troughs as well.

Mr Hendry praised pupil behaviour, but recognised that Covid ‘has certainly brought challenges.’ Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“We’re trying not to point to Covid.

“Certainly our current S1s, who have now just moved into S2, have been a particularly strong year. So that kind of bucks against that suggestion.

“But Covid has certainly brought challenges, there’s no doubt about that.”

The director of education Laurence Findlay told me recently that teacher shortages are reaching crisis point in every Aberdeenshire secondary school. How are they affecting Inverurie Academy?

“We’re in the very fortunate position that they’re not. We have no vacancies.

“There’s challenges, and Laurence would understand this, a lot of schools in both city and Shire have real, real challenges and it’s a real worry.

“But I’m in the fortunate position that I regularly get good numbers of applications.

“As we head to the end of this term, I’ve got three teachers leaving me, for a variety of reasons that are normal in the life-cycle of a school. But I’ve got three new teachers starting in August to replace them.

“However, there are challenges. If I was to lose a maths teacher or a design and technology teacher, they would be difficult to replace.

“So there are particular areas where it’s more difficult, and I think those areas are expanding. Five years ago it might have been maths and design and technology, but now science can be a challenge as well.

“But we are fortunate at Inverurie in that people want to come and work here.

Inverurie Academy is so far avoiding the worst of the teacher shortage crisis. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“So actually I don’t have those concerns that some of my colleagues have at other schools.

“I experienced it at my previous two schools [Northfield and Lochside] – staffing was always a challenge.”

What are the positives at Inverurie Academy at the moment?

“Well, the fact that we have no vacancies tells you right away that it’s a school in good health. People want to come and work here. So reputationally, professionally, we’re in a good place.

“We have a very strong parent body, a very active parent council who really support the school significantly.

“We spoke about attainment and achievement – we have a huge number of young people who are doing very well.

“We have a positive destination ratio of 98%. So these young people are going on to be successful in a variety of different ways.

“Our senior phase curriculum is a strong offering – one of the advantages of being a large school is that you can offer more.

“We have a number of NPAs, which are National Progression Awards, which we offer in the senior phase. We have the Foundation Apprenticeships as well.

“Now, the Foundation Apprenticeships are really interesting because we have young people who do them who will then go on to Modern Apprenticeships – a fantastic opportunity for them.

“But we also have Sixth Years doing Foundation Apprenticeships who are planning to apply to UCAS, and it gives them an additionality as far as UCAS applications are concerned.

“Foundation Apprenticeships are a really positive story, we have 80 young people doing them this year alone.

‘There are a great deal of positives right now,’ Mr Hendry told The P&J. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“I spoke about extra-curricular stuff, I do think a school has to be more than the curriculum. We have a huge number of opportunities for young people to get involved.

“Next week we’ll have over a thousand people at Thainstone Exchange for our annual prize-giving, we’ll give over 320 awards to First Years right through to S6s.

“We’ll have a summer concert the second last week of term. Again, that’ll be really well supported not just by our families but also by the community.

“So I think there’s a great deal of positives right now.”

What’s the biggest challenge in being a head teacher at a big secondary school with 1,300 pupils?

“There’s a question!

“I could do with longer days, more hours. But I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think a lot of people in today’s work environment don’t have enough hours in the day.

“My job is to get the best from my young people, so that has to continually be the drive.

“I’m very lucky at Inverurie. I have a very strong leadership team, so strategically we’re in a good place. I also have an amazing group of teachers.

“The teachers are where it happens. The teachers are the ones that give up their evenings to run clubs or shows – we’re doing School of Rock at the Town Hall for three nights in October. And that’s a step back to pre-Covid. Inverurie used to do school shows, but then since Covid they just haven’t happened.

“But yeah, I think it’s just that challenge of continually working to improve, to improve our curriculum, to improve our opportunities.

“We have good young people, and it’s about how we bring all that together.

‘A head teacher’s only as good as the team around them.’

“We have a big focus on how we record our wider achievement coming in the next 12 months. A big focus on skills – how do we record and how do we develop skills? That’s another key piece of work if you’re looking to produce good young people.

“It feels sometimes like you’re juggling, but a head teacher’s only as good as the team around them, and I’m fortunate that I’ve got a really strong team here who work really hard, and actually care about the school and the community.”

What is rewarding about the job?

“Young people.

“I’ll give you a really simple example. The school show were really struggling to find a drummer for the band.

“So yesterday I phoned a former pupil who I knew was a fantastic drummer. She’s at university at the moment, and we had a really good conversation about her maybe coming back to her old school and helping out. Honestly, she was delighted.

“I’ve just said goodbye to S6. We had a fantastic school prom – in fact the pictures were in your paper.

“It’s about young people. And it’s not just about when they leave – they come back and they tell us about their achievements.

“It’s about seeing the successes, it’s about former pupils coming back and working at the school.

“It’s got to be about the young people – that’s what keeps you going, gets you up in the morning and in here early, and keeps you driving to get outcomes for young people. That goes for anyone in education.

“Young people have still got amazing potential and continue to grab those opportunities.

“So that’s what gets you up in the morning. Young people.”

How confident are you that Inverurie Academy has a bright future? What would your message to parents be?

‘We’ll continue to improve’: Inverurie Academy head teacher Neil Hendry. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“My job is to continue to give those opportunities, to continue to improve, and actually, Inverurie will go from strength to strength.

“We’ll continue to work with parents. We had 180 of our Primary 7 parents here last night for our P7 information evening. So we’re now beginning partnerships with the next generation of parents who are coming up.

“It’s that three-way partnership. It’s young people, families, and the school, working together. That’s the success of a school, it’s how that partnership works. That’s the key.

“We spoke about recruitment and staffing, and we are in a really fortunate position.

“I think parents know that, and I think that’s reassuring from a parental perspective, that we have staff to full capacity.

“We’ll continue to improve. We’ve done a lot of work on the senior phase, the S5-S6 curriculum.

“There’s a big piece of work started – and it’ll be ongoing the next couple of years – around our broad general education.

“So we’re looking to introduce some electives into S2, and that’ll be based on skills, and that should hopefully then begin a progression pathway into the senior phase.

“We continue to thrive, and yeah, that’s my job, to continue that journey of improvement.”