Next week, thousands of 16-year-olds leave school for the last time. Having just reached the compulsory school-leaving age, they will be allowed to depart at the end of this term as Christmas leavers and take charge of their own futures.
Unlike England, where young people are only able to leave school in the summer, Scotland (under the 1980 Education Act) has two possible leaving dates for school pupils.
It stipulates that compulsory education in Scotland ends either on 31 May or the day before the Christmas holidays, depending on when a pupil's 16th birthday falls. Those with birthdays between October and the end of February can leave at the end of the winter term. According to figures from Skills Development Scotland, roughly 10 per cent of school leavers depart every Christmas.
While they share many characteristics with other early leavers, research has shown they are a very distinctive but heterogeneous group. A study last year, entitled Partnerships to support early school leavers: school- college transitions and `winter leavers' in Scotland, published by Napier University academics, looked specifically at those Christmas leavers who were granted exceptional entry into college prior to their statutory school leaving date.
Ronald McQuaid, director of the Employment Research Centre at Napier University and one of the authors, said it had identified four kinds of Christmas leavers:
- the first simply left school to follow a clear path from school to vocational training and the career of their choice;
- the second group was disillusioned with school, but would respond to a more adult college environment;
- the third "seemed to be disillusioned with school, and they would probably coast along in a college environment. They didn't like school and would do the minimum in college";
- the last group "basically just want to get out of education".
Pupils in the latter two categories in particular often suffer from a lack of motivation and have become disengaged from school, their teachers confirm. They have low attendance rates because they know that their school career will end midway through the academic year, without the qualifications they could gain if they stayed on until summer.
There was "always a small handful of youngsters in a school for whom it wasn't working, and who wanted to get out as soon as possible," says Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland.
"To stay on for that last six months was a real pain for them, and what they did was either play truant or become a nuisance," he says. This had led to schools coming up with a variety of programmes to accommodate them.
Over the years, there have been calls for the Government to overturn this policy in favour of a single leaving date in the summer. In 2004, for example, Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland (the predecessor body of SLS), said young people should be allowed to leave after four years of secondary school.
"More and more kids are opting to stay at school and do a fifth year, but there is still a hard core who don't want to be there, but are locked in until Christmas," he told the press at the time. "The way to address it is to say, `Do your four years and then you can go'."
This may be an over-simplification of the issue in an attempt to get these - often unmotivated - youngsters out of schools. But at a time of high youth unemployment, such a move might simply mean shifting the problem out of schools to somewhere else, rather than getting rid of it.
Christmas leavers are often among the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and under-qualified young people passing through the school system, according to the research.
The Napier University study found they were "significantly more likely" to have no qualifications, with 63 per cent not having achieved any Standard grades or other SQA qualifications. This not only affects their time at school, but also their chances of success thereafter.
Low attainment is not the only problem shared by many Christmas leavers. According to figures the Napier University researchers obtained from the Scottish Funding Council for 2006-07, about 15 per cent had some kind of physical or learning disability. This compares with 2 per cent of all school leavers who fall into that category.
The study adds that "almost two-fifths of those reported as having a disability were dyslexic". Almost a third of the Christmas leavers in the study had additional support needs.
These young people are also more likely to come from the most deprived areas in Scotland: 30 per cent of them live in the most deprived 15 per cent of geographic areas assessed by the Government.
"These are young people who are more likely to become unemployed than summer leavers," says Marlene McGlynn, Skills Development Scotland's head of operations for the south west.
There are a lot of opportunities for summer leavers - more college courses starting as well as a large variety of apprenticeships, she explains. Employers also often plan their recruitment around the summer leaving date.
"The young people leaving in the winter usually do so because they have become a bit switched off and they just want to leave school at the earliest opportunity. A key thing for us is keeping them in learning."
It is crucial, she stresses, to create pathways to suit every individual youngster, which will prevent them from becoming disengaged.
But developing, staffing and running an individual timetable for every child is not realistic for most schools. Schemes introduced by the Government in recent years have therefore attempted to promote inter- agency co-operation and early prevention strategies.
Its 16+ Learning Choices agenda moved the spotlight onto early planning and prevention in schools and increased cooperation between schools and learning providers to provide pathways for all young people.
"16+ Learning Choices is the Scottish Government's model for helping young people to stay in learning post-16 and is an integral part of Curriculum for Excellence," a Government spokesman said.
"It aims to ensure an offer of post-16 learning for every young person who wants it. This is a universal offer and gives systematic priority to those young people who need more choices and chances."
More recently, the importance of offering a variety of pathways through education for young people was stressed again in Putting Learners at the Centre, the Government's new strategy for post-16 education, introduced this autumn.
Alongside policy initiatives from the Government, schools are working increasingly with other agencies and offering more vocational routes - a development many hope will be accelerated through the implementation of the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence.
Careers advisers and local authority guidance staff often start working with potential Christmas leavers more than a year before their departure from school. Many schools organise special Christmas leaver programmes, including exceptional entry projects in co-operation with colleges, in which young people attend college part-time, or even full-time, in their last term before leaving school.
To help Christmas leavers in their transition to further education, colleges offer specific courses for pupils in their final year, as well as introductory courses for Christmas leavers starting in January.
These offer a mixture of continued general education, core skills - including soft skills - as well as an "early sense of direction in terms of vocational areas (school leavers) might want to work in", said John Spencer, convener of the Principals' Convention of Scotland's Colleges.
"The programmes we offer from Christmas are ones which cover that general base - engaging them, getting them enthused and drawing them back into education to stop them drifting, and then starting to give them exposure to particular vocational areas to build up their capabilities," he explained.
"By the time they get to the summer they are equipped and ready to move on, perhaps to a National Certificate programme."
According to the Napier University study, most young people involved in early entry programmes complete their courses or achieve some kind of positive outcome. Only one in five of the 2,000-plus exceptional entry winter leavers assessed withdrew completely, while 46 per cent completed the programme and passed the assessment. A further 16 per cent completed the programme, but failed their final assessment.
"At present, there are no plans to amend the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. The educational impact of any change to this legislation would have to be carefully examined along with many other related issues before change could be considered," a Scottish Government spokesman said.
Rather than completely revising the school leaving date legislation, Ken Cunningham suggests an expansion of the flexible pathways currently available and even more co-operation with other partners.
"The question is whether you need to legislate to make sure youngsters have the most appropriate pathway to go. If the law is they can go at 15, you have got to make sure they are going into something.
"If the law is they can walk away, they can walk away and just not do anything. So in many respects, it is probably better that there is greater encouragement of more effective pathways being available for youngsters," he says.
This would require clear guidelines, however, on who is responsible for the young person. "They could so easily fall through a crack. If you have multi-agency support for someone, somebody needs to take the lead on that," he adds.
Currently, young people remain the responsibility of their local authority and their school until their statutory leaving date.
"They are our children, they are our responsib- ility," says May Winton, headteacher of Drumchapel High in Glasgow. "The young people who go to college in that last term are quite often the most vulnerable. Somebody needs to keep an eye on them and make sure they are looked after."
While it is clear that schools continue to carry responsibility for these young people, the issue is not as clear-cut when it comes to funding. There remains the question of accreditation if these pupils achieve qualifications while at college.
There is a risk of financial double-counting, cautions Mr Cunningham, with pupils remaining on the school roll and colleges also receiving some funding for them. "So the colleges get funded for them, and so does the school."
Where children achieve qualifications while at college, school outcome statistics can also be distorted if these qualifications are not accredited to the school.
And as education budgets across the country are tightened and colleges face unprecedented cuts, it remains to be seen whether a detrimental effect on the support available to Christmas leavers can be avoided.
While colleges from next year will have to offer a place to all 16 to 19- year-olds not in education, work or training, Christmas leavers do not fall into that category until they turn 16, which could, as cuts start to bite, impact upon the number of places on introductory courses they can offer pupils.
One-to-one support, crucial to these students, could also suffer. "One of the dangers of the cuts to the FE sector is the potential lack of places for these youngsters, and that is going to reduce again the range of opportunities for them," says Mr Cunningham.
School leaver statistics
10% - Proportion of school leavers who leave at Christmas, aged 16. (Source: Skills Development Scotland)
63% - Proportion of exceptional entry winter leavers who have not achieved any Standard grades or other SQA qualifications.
15% - The proportion of exceptional entry winter leavers reported as having some kind of physical or learning disability.
30% - Proportion of exceptional entry winter leavers living in the most deprived 15 per cent of geographic areas.
21.6% - Proportion of exceptional entry winter leavers who withdrew from the programme into an unknown destination.
46% - Proportion of exceptional entry winter leavers who successfully completed their college programme.
16% - Proportion of exceptional entry winter leavers who completed their college programme but did not pass the final assessment.
(Source: Partnerships to support early school leavers: school-college transition and `winter leavers' in Scotland, Jesus Canduela, Rachel Chandler, Ian Elliott, Colin Lindsay, Suzi Macpherson, Ronald McQuaid, Robert Raeside in 2010; figures based on 2006-07 data)
`I liked it when we were down in the sewer'
Fifteen year-old Brooklyn Gamble (pictured holding hose) from Darnley in Glasgow is proud of her 100 per cent attendance record on the programme organised for her by Glasgow City Council Activity Agreement Coach George Dragsnes and his colleagues.
Since the beginning of this term, she has been on full-time leave from Hillpark Secondary to attend courses and take part in trips and events. She was referred to the programme following meetings between her school, careers advisers, the local authority and other partners.
"I didn't enjoy school and I didn't really have any friends. I was wandering about by myself," says Brooklyn, explaining why she wanted to leave school early.
The programme involves confidence-building courses, team-building, a Skills Development Course preparing them for work placements, writing their CVs and applying for work, but also a week-long project with Fire Reach, where Brooklyn and eight other Christmas leavers were taught to use hoses and carry out searches in a dark room.
"It was really good, actually," says Brooklyn. "I liked it when we were down the sewer. It wasn't real fun at the beginning when we went down, but once you knew your way about it you got used to it."
Schools are updated monthly on their pupils' performance. Before moving on to more formal training, they complete a work placement, which requires them to be on time and integrate into a professional workplace.
Disengaged from school, pupils have to be introduced slowly to a schedule and their responsibilities, says Mr Dragsnes.
"We would maybe start at 10, 10:30, and maybe finish at 2pm - we don't put too much pressure on them to start with. When they are on placement now, we meet them at eight in the morning on a street corner in Glasgow. After all the weeks and months, they can now cope with that. They are now much better prepared and much more confident."
"At first, everybody was quiet and wasn't up for doing stuff, but as it went on, more people started doing stuff, and now everybody is up for doing everything," Brooklyn agrees.
She completed a work placement in a nursery in Knightswood, and now feels ready to move on and follow her dream of a career in childcare. "I got better at working with a team, working independently, and communicating with more people," she says.
`They liked the practical aspect'
Drumchapel High in Glasgow has introduced an innovative new programme for its Christmas leavers.
It had been a challenge to find a curriculum to suit Christmas leavers, says headteacher May Winton. In the past, a small group of the most disengaged leavers often "disappeared" at the end of November, and it was difficult for the school to track them.
"We got to the point where what we were offering them was not what they wanted, although we were trying," she explains.
This year, there were more young people showing an interest in leaving at Christmas than usual, adds Lisa Morrison, principal teacher for pastoral care, and the school "wanted to make sure we offered them the very best possible support we could".
A comprehensive programme of events, organised with the school's partners, has included classes on CVs and personal statements, interview preparation, a presentation on opportunities and skills required in the construction industry, and mock interviews.
Feedback from the young people has been positive, Ms Morrison says. "I think they have found it useful, they found it enjoyable, and they liked the practical aspects of what we are doing, preparing them for interviews and writing applications."