Winter leavers can feel penalised by having to stay at school until they reach 16. But Lauder College in Dunfermline has just recognised the achievements of 140 Fife students who have completed a pioneering six-month June start programme.
Traditionally synonymous with frustration and disaffection, these students are winter leavers who are allowed to leave school for college before the normal leaving age of 16. It is an idea that has just been taken up by the Scottish Conservatives.
Specifically designed for winter leavers, the Lauder programme offers eight courses, at Intermediate 1 level, which are intended to be an introduction to vocational further education.
The idea is that those students who have to hang on at school after Christmas until their 16th birthday in the winter months, but do not intend to study for more qualifications, are released at the end of fourth year to attend college.
They are exposed to a range of vocational courses: engineering, care, construction, creative technologies, computing, art and design, hospitality and tourism and business and management. The students select one and must also study the core subjects of IT, maths and communications.
Not only do they put their first foot on the career ladder, they are able to find their feet in the adult world with the support and guidance of teachers and tutors. Half of this year's intake is expected to stay on at college to study at Higher and Intermediate 2 level.
Janet Cox, assistant principal at Lauder, said: "A winter leavers'
programme has been running for seven years and we've been constantly improving and developing it in consultation with our students.
"This year we brought the start date forward to June to offer a six-month programme. It's our intention to keep these young people in education as long as we can until they are able to make mature decisions for themselves.
"We work very closely with the schools and we involve parents through parents' evenings and a celebratory event at the end of the programme," she said.
Ken McGinley, head of Dunfermline High, praised the college's commitment and its partnerships with local schools. "Pupils see themselves as being penalised for having to stay at school until they are 16, despite having completed four years of secondary education," he said.
"We have found the June start programme very successful and many students have chosen to stay on to complete a year at college. The programme introduces them to the college environment and encourages them to continue in learning."
Significantly, the young people remain on the school roll while on the six-month course and, therefore, have the support of their guidance teachers who receive weekly attendance reports and monitor performance.
Lindsay Roy, head of Inverkeithing High, went as far as to suggest that the scheme plays a part in filling the skills gap in traditional trades. "These children can't work until they're 16 but they've done four years at secondary school, so why should they be held back from their vocational career?
"There's a real skills shortage in a whole range of skilled occupations, for example plumbing and areas of construction, and I think we're doing something to address that. The June start programme is catering to the individuals' needs and offers flexibility.
Mr Roy called for the statutory leaving age to be changed from 16 to the end of fourth year.