For many young people, leaving school can mean entering the world of unemployment. But at Craigroyston Community High, they are learning the all-important lesson of improving their chances and raising their employability - with the help of local businesses. Douglas Blane reports
A new building can be a fresh start for any school. But pupils and teachers need to bring fresh attitudes to unspoiled surroundings, or it won't be long before expectations and achievements are back where they started.
Craigroyston Community High is an Edinburgh school which faces many challenges that the imminent move to new premises will not overcome, says Margaret Russell, in her third year as head. "Our leaver destinations were showing almost half our pupils ending up not in employment, education or training, compared with 20 per cent nationally. I realised when I came that we had to focus on employability - on giving our pupils the skills, knowledge and aspirations that would take many more to positive destinations."
Craigroyston had just embarked on three years of support from Tom Hunter's 2020 Vision project, which has the same focus on improving leaver destinations. "That gave us opportunities," says Mrs Russell. "We already had some links with businesses. We tried to generate many more, and we employed someone from Scottish Business in the Community one day a week to help us."
The impact of these ongoing contacts with the real world has been immense, she says. The partnerships formed with companies large and small are now central to achieving the objective of improving outcomes for Craigroyston kids, the majority of whom have few obvious advantages. "Some of our pupils are third-generation unemployed. They have no role models and no idea what possibilities are out there for them when they leave school."
But they are learning fast, says Scottish Business in the Community's Hazel McDonald. "Last year, for instance, I set up mock interviews for the fourth-years at dozens of businesses around Edinburgh. They had to get themselves to the place, on time and well dressed, ask for the right person at reception and then be interviewed. This was the culmination of the employability skills courses which the whole fourth year now takes."
These courses, delivered during two periods a week, tackle leaver destinations head-on by helping pupils develop their skills, widen their knowledge and raise their aspirations, says depute head Jacky Burnett. "There are six blocks: interview skills, CVs, study skills, money matters, careers, and motivational videos.
"On the CV block, for example, we sit down with people from businesses and help the pupils tease out their achievements. If you just ask kids what they have done, they'll often say `Nothing.' But it's not true."
Stevie Hunter (S4) explains the type of thing a 15-year-old can include on his CV, once he starts thinking about skills rather than just jobs. "They told us that if we had been trusted to look after a younger member of our family, to put that in. It might seem small but it shows you're trustworthy and responsible. You'd also to include things like sports. They gave us guidelines and they made suggestions. By the time I'd finished putting it together, I was quite chuffed with myself."
Pupils were prompted to remember any time they had handled money, says Brett Weir (S4). "I worked with my uncle and he would give me money to go and get wood. He trusted me. I put that in."
Brett is a keen footballer, says Mrs Burnett, and that too offers a rich seam of the skills employers seek. "You tease it out to get everything you can. Have you been the captain? Do you go to training regularly? Do you like being part of a team?
"You're aiming to give them the ability eventually to do all this themselves. But they need support at first to think about all the things they've done that demonstrate the qualities that interest employers."
Lessons learnt by the pupils during the CV module need to be re-learnt and reinforced in the others, says Victoria Miller, a director at law firm McGrigors, who has been coming into school for several years to help teach interview skills. "I'd a lot to learn about these kids and their backgrounds. I asked one class `who has parents in employment?' and there was just one out of 20. It was an eye-opener. There was a girl, when we were looking at qualities that interest employers, who told me she did nothing. In fact, she looked after four siblings while her mother was at work.
"It gave me a sense of achievement, getting her to realise she did have the skills, helping her find the right words - like commitment and responsibility. These kids don't think of words like that. But potential employers look for them all the time. I feel I've made a difference when the children engage with me. In terms of the firm, we are commercial solicitors with a very active CSR programme (corporate social responsibility). It's important to be active in the community. Craigroyston is popular, because talking to kids gets immediate results."
School managers often comment on the difficulty of maintaining the kind of productive relationships with businesses that Craigroyston now possesses. They speak of their dependence on committed individuals whose departure from a company often ends the connection.
"That has been my experience in the past," agrees Mrs Russell. "But it's not happening here. Firms see what we're up against and want to help. They have an emotional investment in the school. They feel they're doing worthwhile work and want to continue. That's part of it. The other part is having Hazel."
Scottish Business in the Community can build lasting business contacts with a school, says Hazel McDonald. "Design Links, for example, came in through us and has taken its involvement with Craigroyston quite far. We work with all the major organisations in the area, and a lot of the SMEs (small or medium-sized enterprises). My job is about building a strong business network to support employability and education in North Edinburgh. Businesses are keen to support schools because they see the need and they get a huge amount back".
Mrs Russell agrees. "Businesses are very willing to help schools. But often they don't know how."
NEW BUILDING, NEW BRAND AND CREATING NEW HORIZONS
Companies re-brand themselves periodically, so why not schools - and what better time to do it than just before the move to new premises?
"Branding is about how an organisation communicates its values and the feelings of the individuals in it," says Mike Stevenson, managing director of Leith company Design Links. "Rebranding Craigroyston has been particularly exciting. We're digging deeper and involving more people than usual - and what we're getting back is more imaginative. People in companies play safe. Kids don't."
Design Links won the accolade "Small Company of the Year" in June for its work with the school - which has included preparing videos and podcasts, showcasing achievements and forming a partnership with the independent St George's School for Girls. "I'm driven to help young people become confident and walk tall," says Mr Stevenson. "I went to Kirkcaldy High with Gordon Brown. Unlike him, I left when I was 15. I've done well, but it was a long road - and that's an important message for young people.
"It's not about instant success. It's about making choices and mistakes, taking risks, seeing what's out there. It's about not being afraid to talk to adults. When you get young people to be creative, you see a different side. That's the side the employers want."
It's a side that Bradley Thompson (S2) illustrates well, when he tries to explain the rebranding, and the techniques, such as mood boards, that Design Links has been using to get pupils exploring their thoughts and feelings, and expressing them in shapes, colours, words and imagery.
"It can be dull here," he says. "We are looking forward to moving and being happier, getting on better with teachers. Our group came up with an image of a star and the words `We are all stars at Craigroyston.' Everyone here has the right to move forward and get a good education, a good job. A star goes in five directions, so you can't always go forward. Sometimes you get off track and make mistakes. But you learn from them. You try again."
For some pupils, the branding exercise has been similar to an art project. But there were differences, says Janine Pearson (S2). "There wouldn't usually be so many ideas. A lot of people would give up on the teachers and want to be cool. But everyone was having fun. They were all listening and giving their ideas. No one was left out."
The open nature of the brief helped it appeal beyond the enthusiasts, says Sharon Black, principal teacher of art. "In class, they might feel restricted in terms of ideas. If I give them a brief, I would specify size and maybe colours. With this, there were no restrictions. It was a positive day and they were allowed to put down anything they wanted, as individuals and groups."
The day that got rebranding moving involved all second-year pupils and art, business and craft, design and technology departments, says CDT teacher Carrie Anderson. "It was partly about A Curriculum for Excellence and partly about giving the students ownership of their new school - through brainstorming, working in groups, peer assessment. We were aiming to come up with the things they'll see around them, the uniforms, even the rugs they will walk on."