In tough times like these, schools need imagination to deliver a curriculum that can meet the needs of every pupil. It would be easy to tighten belts, cut down options and concentrate on core subjects. At Castle Douglas High they are doing exactly the opposite - widening pupil choice.
The secret is to seek out and use the skills that are all around, says Sheelagh Rusby, principal teacher of lifelong learning. "It's looking for local solutions - which is especially important in rural schools. We've been talking to employers around the community and to a neighbouring school, Dalbeattie High."
Pooling resources and ideas, and searching for solutions that benefit everyone - rather than simply going out asking for help - makes a lot of sense, says Dalbeattie headteacher Susan Bain. "Two schools working together and sharing can achieve more than either alone.
"In rural skills, for instance, we have 500 square metres of allotment that can be used by pupils from both schools. What we don't have yet in that subject - and what's novel about the hairdressing course the two schools and a local employer have been developing - is that it is being delivered, to a large extent, by people in the business, rather than by teachers."
It is a good model for the future and for other courses, such as rural skills, construction and care, says Mrs Rusby, pushing open the door of Prana Hair and Beauty's elegant shopfront, halfway up Castle Douglas's main street, and introducing the owner, Carolyn Kennedy.
"We've been taking schoolgirls on work experience for several years," she says. "So quite a few of my staff are former pupils who came first on work experience. This is different because they get a qualification.
"The girls are useful right away, even before they learn hairdressing. We do a neck and shoulder massage when the client arrives. They get a hand massage while waiting for the colour to develop. They get a finishing- touch make-up. Another pair of hands helps with all those. The girls can fetch what the stylist needs. It all helps keep things flowing. The girls can learn a lot just by observing."
A couple of years of working Saturdays at Prana meant Hannah Malcolm (S5) was able to do much more than observe, when she began studying for Intermediate 2 hairdressing through the new school-business teaching model. It involves two half-days at the salon a week, as well as classes in school, she says.
"I'm hoping to work in hairdressing and Carolyn offered me a job at the end of S4. But because I could do this course, I decided to stay on at school and get other qualifications. At the end of this year, I'll come and work full-time here, while getting more hair and beauty qualifications through college."
Nadine Wright (S6) had planned to do childcare, she says. "But I was sitting in the hairdresser's getting my hair done one day and thought, `I'd like to do this as a job.' I wasn't sure I could get into it. Then Mrs Rusby told me about this hairdressing course. I'm doing Intermediate 1 and I come to the salon half a day a week.
"You talk to people all the time while you're working. I love it here. It's practical, and if you get stuck you can just ask anybody. Nobody ever shouts at you."
Training a workforce for the future is one reason an enlightened employer would work with a school in this way, Carolyn says. "In the past, we've taken young people as trainees and part-way through they decide it's not for them.
"With this new model, they get to try the profession before committing themselves and we get to see if we want them in the team. My salon director, Gill Goldie, who has 21 years' experience, enjoys training young people, so she and I and the school developed this course between us. She now trains the schoolgirls as well as my staff."
There is also considerable personal satisfaction in watching young people grow in confidence and ability, she says. "Some girls can barely hold a conversation with clients when they start. So you nurture them, give them a wee kick up the bum sometimes, and help them learn to sound professional and confident, which is what you need in any job."
Nurturing is also a good word for the partnership the school has formed with Prana and plans to form with other local employers, says Mrs Rusby. "This didn't just happen," she says. "We have been talking to each other for a while and working towards this. It's about adding value, bringing life and impetus to a course and using the skills that are out there already, in your community.
TIME TO GET ON COURSE
Putting together a new certificate course with external employers takes time, talk, planning, and ultimately satisfying the Scottish Qualifications Authority about delivery and assessment, says Sheelagh Rusby.
"SQA told us what we'd need - assessors, internal verifiers, external verifiers, partnership agreements, site checklists. They told us Gill Goldie, Prana's salon director, could deliver the Skills for Work course because she is a very experienced stylist."
The hair and beauty department at Ayr College was contacted and agreed to become internal verifiers. "They came down, studied our paperwork, went out to the salon, looked at the work the pupils were doing and recommended approval."
Finally, SQA sent an external verifier to Castle Douglas. She was also very happy with the arrangements, says Mrs Rusby. "So we launched the course at the start of this session."