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Giving vocational pupils a taste of the good life

Dornoch Academy offers children with an interest in the countryside an ideal place to get hands-on

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Dornoch Academy offers children with an interest in the countryside an ideal place to get hands-on

Original paper headline: Pastoral pursuits give vocational pupils a taste of the good life

Hat pulled firmly over his ears, 15-year-old Morgan is hunkered down, patiently shaking a tub of food at a goose - who's having none of it for the moment.

There are patches of snow up on the mountains and a biting wind. Nearby another two teenagers, Ryan and Michelle, are deep in conversation, carrying buckets of feed to the sheep on the hillside.

If it weren't for the icy blasts, this would be a pastoral idyll - teenagers out of school for the afternoon, at work on a windswept Highland croft. But the cold does not bother them; this is sweet freedom, away from the classroom routine and out in the fresh air.

This is the life that Ryan Munro wants - far from the noisy town. "Well, it was a choice between this and cosmetology and I didn't fancy doing hair and beauty," says the 15-year-old with a cheeky grin.

Ryan is in fourth year at Dornoch Academy, studying rural skills as part of his Skills for Work Intermediate 1. "I want to be a gamekeeper. My grandad used to be a ghillie, so I've heard some bits about it," he says, as the pair approach a small flock of sheep beneath some trees.

As well as coming here one day a week, Ryan attends college and spends another day a week doing work experience on Alladale Estate, made famous by the owner Paul Lister's plan to reintroduce wolves and brown bears to the Highlands.

When he's there, Ryan greets and chats to guests on shoots and helps drag their trophies down the hill. "This time of year, it's hinds and calves and then in the summer it's the stags. I just like being outside," he says. "I don't care if it's raining or anything."

His classmate, Michelle Matheson, 15, doesn't like being inside either. "Sometimes you feel like you're learning more when you're out and getting hands-on, rather than sitting in the classroom learning off a board or a textbook," says Michelle, who is studying childcare one day a week at college but also interested in getting joinery experience. Pupils can study construction and hospitality at school and college and pursue automotive engineering at college.

As part of their rural skills course, they get a wide range of work experience - on the croft, in forestry, at a sheep farm or garden centre and on another Highland estate. They also benefit from the expert practitioners on site who deliver education and give hands-on training.

The vocational programme has a high profile at the school and its own branding - students wear ties to highlight their involvement. They can also switch between vocational and academic courses during the course of their school career.

Three students with additional support needs join seven mainstream students for elements of rural skills - one of them, Steven Fraser, 13, gazes at the snowy hill tops. "I like coming out here and seeing the view," he says. "We usually feed the sheep and do things," says Steven, who'd rather be a goalkeeper than a gamekeeper. "I'm football mad," he says.

He and classmates Sarah Smith, 15, and Morgan Mackay are building a hen shed as part of their project work on the croft, supervised by crofter Ruth Clayton. Ruth used to run her own design studio, regularly working 18 to 20-hour days.

"Everything was wanted `now' back then. There's a different pace here and there's a lot more concern about people," says Ruth, who escaped the rat race 10 years ago.

She's passionate about the countryside and passing on her knowledge to young people, and is moved when she hears how last year's young crofters have benefited from their interest in the working countryside.

Depute head Lyn Gordon runs the course and teaches rural skills at Dornoch Academy, where she has taught for almost 40 years. "Our children who completed the Skills for Work programme last year have all found employment or apprenticeships or gone on to further education," she says. "That is a tremendous achievement for these children, because they went through school hating it from the time they were five. They weren't particularly academic and the whole Skills for Work programme has changed their attitude to life and work."

The programme is supported by Skills for Work co-ordinator Maxine Garson, who helped to set it up and to get approval from the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Rural skills has been running here for four years. It was piloted, then introduced by Highland Council.

Since then it has grown in popularity, particularly with Sarah and Morgan, who have Down's Syndrome and have grown more confident about doing practical tasks and working outside.

"There are certainly elements of the work they can do and achieve and I would hopefully see them achieving some units over the next two or three years," says Mrs Gordon. The pupils will also start a course on managing environmental resources at an appropriate level in the summer term.

Work experience like this introduces these youngsters to possible job prospects.

"They were working in the school garden the whole of last year and we're just beginning to introduce them to the croft, where they're taking part in the hen shed project. They're going to build the hen shed, keep hens, sell the eggs, cook with them and learn how to look after the animals and realise animals have similar needs to themselves." says Mrs Gordon, who has lived on a shooting estate managed by her husband for the past 30 years.

She is originally from Kent, but moved here with her husband in her early twenties. When you see the view from her office you can see why she did - a window the length of the room is filled entirely by a seascape of the Dornoch Firth.

As we watch the pupils feed the animals, she talks more about how this work benefits teenagers: "I think it greatly enhances their confidence and employability skills, working in a real-life environment, knowing they've got to put up with any weather that's thrown at them."

They have been kept in school for just two days during the worst winter weather when access roads to their placements became treacherous.

"They've got to put up with the cold, they've still got to do the work that happens on the placement in reality, so if the sheep feed needs checking and it's snowing, they've still got to get on with it," she says.

Back at school, the children keep logbooks of their tasks, describing what went well and where improvements could have been made.

They describe how they rounded up sheep at the croft last summer: "First we used two dogs, Floss, a 9-year-old, and Sweep, a 2-year-old sheepdog, to gather up the sheep on the hill."

They report that the dog rounded up the sheep very well, and are disarmingly frank in feedback on their own performance: "I could have gone to bed earlier the day before so I was not so tired for walking up the hill."

At this croft last summer, the youngsters learned about different breeds of sheep: "We learnt about `Trade Off', which basically means the effort used to get the reward needed. For example, Cheviots are hard work for a crofter, but in the end there is more money guaranteed for them because of the wool."

Sixth-year Ashleigh Bain, 17, took rural skills as an option last year and described her experience: "I always enjoyed being more practical than sitting in a classroom. I feel my skills are better suited to the outdoors and learning about practical things.

"I got to work in the forestry and work on farms and do a bit of gardening and worked in a garden centre. I went to college at the same time as I did the rural skills course, because you do lots of different courses at the same time. So I did automotive engineering at Inverness College while I did rural skills."

She did work experience in a garage during her fourth year and went back to the garage one day a week for work experience last year. In August, Ashleigh will start her training to become a car mechanic at Inverness College.

Another work opportunity for pupils like Ashleigh comes from the school garden, a hive of industry in summer with a polytunnel which houses raised beds for fruit and vegetables. And there is an orchard on a grassy slope leading down to picnic tables beside the pond. It looks a bit forlorn in midwinter, but in a few months everyone's hoping for a bumper organic crop to sell at Dornoch Farmers' Market.

This is where learning support auxiliary Sally Nichols works with Sarah, Morgan and Steven. "We've had the polytunnel two years and it's been very successful. And we do projects in the garden, like pond dipping, and we're trying to re-establish a little bit of Caledonian Forest by setting native trees and use the garden a bit like an outdoor classroom," says Sally, whose background in ecology equips her ideally for this role.

"We study things like germination and basic biology and the growing of plants. We talk about what we need as human beings to survive and what plants need."

Inverness is just 50 minutes' drive from Dornoch, so people here can commute to work in a range of occupations. As well as opportunities on the land, tourism has developed into a year-round business, thanks to pop icon Madonna.

The spin-off from her wedding here to Guy Ritchie has outlived the couple's marriage. "Dornoch has become more open to visitors throughout the year, ever since Madonna's wedding," says Mrs Gordon. "It just opened up interest. The cathedral is so beautiful and a lot of people come here to get married. There's virtually a wedding every weekend."

As the afternoon light fades, the teenagers tidy up after their tasks and bundle into the minibus to head for home. Chilled city-slickers run for the car and slide the heater control to full-on. Note to self on how this task could have been improved: always carry wellingtons in your vehicle and wear several layers to prevent wind chill.

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