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Fourth years take to the trade routes

Youthstart, a vocational alternative to conventional subjects, is giving disillusioned teenagers a fresh perspective on skills

Youthstart, a vocational alternative to conventional subjects, is giving disillusioned teenagers a fresh perspective on skills

Praise is not something the average Scottish male expects, says construction course tutor Rodger Harkins, as the two young students get up to leave. "It takes you by surprise. Usually we comment on them and their work. It's quite emotional listening to them talking about us."

Having completed a year at John Wheatley College, on Youthstart, a vocational alternative to fourth year in school, Chris Brown, 15, and Sam Hendry, 16, have been explaining why it went well.

"I've matured a lot in the year I've been here," Chris says. "I used to carry on and act childish. Now I just get on with the work. That carries over as well to what I'm like outside college."

Part of the reason for the change in both lads is that they have been learning skills that will be useful to them, rather than studying subjects whose relevance is hard to see, they explain.

"My dad and brothers are bricklayers," Sam says. "I knew I liked that, but the good thing about construction here is you get to try all the other trades, like plumbing and roofing, to see if you like them too."

"We've always planned, my mum and brothers and me, to make a family business," Chris says. "I like plumbing and joinery. The lecturers are great here. They treat you with respect."

That makes the difference, Sam says, not just to how you feel in class but to how well you learn. "You get treated like a grown up. They talk to you the way you talk to them. You can have a joke and a laugh with them while you're getting on with your work."

"Your mind gets on the task," Chris adds. "You're not thinking `I won't give him the satisfaction when he asks me to do something.' You need to respect somebody for them to respect you."

Commended recently by HM Inspectors, Youthstart is a programme for pupils who have not benefited from their third year in local schools. "They are not eligible to leave school yet," explains Mr Harkins. "So instead of doing Standard grades, they come to college every day and work at construction, hairdressing or catering."

Because they are disengaged students, several issues have to be tackled in their first few weeks and possibly months, he explains: "First, you need to make them feel safe. You have to break down territorial issues that are a problem for many youngsters. You're bringing kids from different areas together, who've never been comfortable in each other's presence. Often they'll not have ventured far beyond their own area, even into the city centre."

Encouraging them to use facilities and resources, and to start hunting for jobs beyond their own territory is one of the aims of Youthstart, says the college. Launched in 2003 as a partnership with Lochend Community High, the project now offers an alternative curriculum to pupils from four local secondaries. Numbers are relatively small - two classes of eight this year in construction, for instance - but the impact on individuals disproportionately large.

"I didn't like school," Chris says. "But the only days I missed coming to college last year was when I was ill."

Building confidence is the key, says Mr Harkins. "Low self-esteem often manifests itself in behaviour problems. It's a way of hiding lack of confidence by sounding super-confident."

Students get to know each other as their personal, social and vocational skills are built up in small steps, he says. "They also need to get to know us and - even more importantly - themselves. If you stereotype youngsters, they start to believe the hype. So, instead, you identify what they can do and then gradually push them more and more.

"If you asked them at the start of the year to build a herb garden, obviously they couldn't do it. We teach them practical skills and integrate planning, measuring, setting it out, communicating, working with others. We want them to learn things that will develop them as individuals."

Students work in pairs initially, each doing a similar task, he says. "Peer learning is very effective. They learn to be objective about each other's work and communicate that without being offensive. They learn to support each other."

All this guidance and coaching comes to fruition in the final few weeks of that first year, when the class works as a large team on a substantial practical project. Two years ago it was a vibrant sensory garden, off the main entrance hall, with a meandering brick path and raised beds for flowers and shrubs, wooden benches, and a striking black metal sculpture.

Last year it was a herb garden in the college which, when the lads left, was bare but with beautiful brickwork. This is now bulging with borage and basil, mint, rosemary and thyme. "It's great to see it with the plants in," Sam says. "The hardest part was doing the bricks. You wanted to get them looking perfect."

Having gained group awards in construction, core skills and employability last year, both lads have chosen to return to college for another year of honing their skills, extending their education and gaining more qualifications - National Progression Awards in two of the six construction trades, plastering, painting, roofing, plumbing, joinery and brickwork.

Old hands now, they have been giving the new starters a steer in the right direction. "We've had a year here, so we know our way around," Chris says. "We've been telling them about college and showing them where to get the materials they'll need. I'm really glad to be back."

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