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Good hair day

There's a persistent stereotype attached to young people who leave school early with little idea about where they're headed. It's easy to dismiss them as idle and aimless, drifting through life when they should be seizing the day. Or, more topically, prime candidates for the Neet group - not in education, employment or training.

A few months ago Nicole Canning and Vicki Beckley, 15-year-olds from Greenock, were preparing to leave school, uncertain about where they would end up. Both knew that they wanted to be hairdressers, and it wasn't fecklessness that stood in their way; it was confidence (or lack of it).

Nicole and Vicki, S5 pupils at St Columba's High in Gourock, are now heading towards that career, having been provisionally awarded college places. Both put their success largely down to Activate, a one-week Careers Scotland course which they took part in this year.

There are several factors that could see pupils chosen for Activate, including low self-esteem, motivation problems, behavioural difficulties, a lack of skills or an absence of support at home.

The course, which can take place over a longer period, works on practical skills some pupils might lack, and makes them aware of the ones they have.

While they get help with CVs and applications, they also work together to make a raft and keep it afloat, building confidence by calling upon communication and organisational skills they might otherwise have taken for granted.

If you had asked Nicole a few months ago to describe what she could bring to a job, she would have shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "I would've probably said 'I don't know'," she concedes.

Last month, she attended an interview for a hairdressing course at Greenock's James Watt College, and despite being "dead nervous", performed so well that she was awarded a place, subject to a confirmation letter.

Working closely with Activate mentor Leigh Gavin, Nicole had realised what she could offer. "I enjoyed the interviews we practised, how we were told good points to say about ourselves and how you need to be organised and on time," she says. "I'm more confident - I know what to say in interviews."

Vicki might not even have handed in her college application but for Activate. "I wouldn't have been able to fill in an application form and know where to get it," she says. "I would've been lost."

Now, however, she not only wants to become a hairdresser - she wants her own salon. "I'd never thought about having my own business," she says. "Now I'm more up for giving things a try."

An important feature of Activate is based on the knowledge that new-found confidence is often fragile: participants can call on support from their mentor long after they leave school. "You can't put people through these programmes and then drop them," says Calum MacLean, Careers Scotland's employer services manager.

There are 100 schools and 1,900 people involved across Scotland. The cost per school per year, based on 20 pupils, is pound;15,000, which is provided by Careers Scotland, local authorities and the European Social Fund. It is considered a good investment, because 30 per cent of participants would otherwise be expected to make up the Neet group. After completing Activate, the actual number ending up in the Neet group is 8.7 per cent, against a national average of 13 per cent of school leavers.

Some have done more than embark on a career; they have discovered a talent for public speaking. Vicki and fellow S5 pupil Gary Wilkinson recently addressed education professionals at a Neet conference in Glasgow, explaining how Activate worked.

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