Cutting it in the world of hairdressing

A new scheme is giving school leavers a chance to work in a real salon, says Douglas Blane

Douglas Blane

Hunched in a low window seat, with a woolly hat pulled down to his eyebrows, John Lawrie, the only boy in a third-year hairdressing class, looks like he feels very out of place - which just proves how wrong first impressions can be.

"I find it hard to balance my notebook on my knee when I'm sitting like that." He indicates the dozen girls in small chairs grouped around a college lecturer in the high-street hairdressing salon. "It doesn't bother me that I'm the only boy here. I get on with most people; I'm a people-person."

Plenty of school-college collaborations now exist around Scotland, with courses delivered either at college or in school - depending on if a headteacher sees most benefits in a college ethos and facilities or school ownership of a course.

But there is a third possible place for vocational courses - one that Edinburgh's Telford College and Craigroyston Community High have been pioneering.

"We now have Skills for Work courses at various locations around the city," says secondary schools coordinator Margaret Winders. "But doing it this way - with pupils in the workplace - is unique.

"Finding accommodation for all the school students who want to come to us is an issue for Telford College. We now take Craigroyston students, for instance, for four Skills for Work courses. So this seemed a great idea. It did help, in setting it up, that the owner of the salon is a former student of ours.

"Our arrangement with her is that we pay for use of the salon on a Monday when, like many hairdressers, she's closed. We provide our own hairdryers, products and towels. And so far, it's all been working really well."

The school also sees the benefits, says Margaret Russell who, since becoming head of Craigroyston two years ago, has been fostering external links, opening doors for her pupils, and aiming to raise their skills and aspirations.

"Many of them aren't used to speaking to adults," she says. "They don't know that a mile away is Princes Street and a great city. But that's not what they see in the world around them.

"I did the sums and the cost of putting a hairdressing salon in school was Pounds 20,000. On the other hand, hairdressing is very popular at Telford College and they couldn't take all our students who wanted to go. So we had the children, the need and the college lecturer. What we didn't have, before we tried this, was a place to deliver the course."

Apart from the absence of desks, the high-street location presents no difficulties, says college lecturer Fiona Johnston. But the course itself can be a challenge for some youngsters, for whom the technicalities of professional hairdressing come as quite a surprise after the pleasures of working with the hair of friends and family.

"I see this course as giving people the chance to find out if they don't like hairdressing - as well as if they do. When I was a salon owner, the drop-out rate of kids coming straight from school was very high - two out of every three who started. And that's not good for the industry or, indeed, the youngsters.

"When they try this course, some will take to it and others will decide hairdressing is too technical or not as glamorous as it seemed. This gives them the chance to find out while they're at school, when they can still go in a different direction. They might even decide to stay on and work harder when they realise hairdressing is not an easy option."

Learning assistant Yvonne McGechie, who works with the students in the salon every Monday, agrees. "I never got this chance when I was 15. Our headteacher came in one day and asked who was leaving at Christmas and who wanted a hairdressing job. I said 'me' and that was it."

The technical aspects they are learning can be tricky at times, says Tammy Harrison, but she enjoys those more than the writing parts - which don't appeal but do at least have a purpose.

"Most of the other things we've done at school have been pretty boring. I like this course because of the practical side," she says.

"Another perk is you don't have to sit with people you don't like," she adds with a smile.

Only three students in this class have decided for sure that hairdressing is what they want to do when they leave school. But everyone is enjoying the course and the chance to learn how to do things.

"The drying was hard until you got the hang of it," says Nadine Raiker. "But then it was OK."

Nicole MacLeod agrees that blow-drying is tricky at first. "You need a lot of patience to do it all, because you have to layer it."

"You don't layer it," Tammy gets a laugh by taking the teacher's role. "You section it."

Beyond a few practical problems, such as temporary loss of electricity, there haven't been any issues with schoolchildren learning in a real salon, says headteacher Margaret Russell. "You can see how seriously they take it all. One or two used to be quite a handful in school, but their behaviour has definitely improved since they've been coming on this course."

The only problem John presents in school, he confesses, is that he sometimes talks too much. "But when I come here I get to chat as much as I want. They even teach you to talk to the customers when they're in the chair. Plus I get all these skills for work. It's great."

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Douglas Blane

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