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High-tech holiday for Silicon Glen schools

LEEANN Gallacher, like the other 49 West Lothian sixth-year students, could not believe it. "No one's dropped out the whole week and that's unusual. I would never have thought everybody would have come every day," she says.

Leeann, a St Kentigern's Academy student, was finding the first science and technology summer school at Heriot-Watt University a bit special, taking part in workshops, practical exercises and talks.

"It has been really helpful," Leeann says. "Before, I had a limited view of the courses I could take. I now know there are several others. I'd never looked into doing physics and I'd never heard of photonics before." Rather unconventionally, she wants to become a mechanical engineer.

Ian Bishop, a St Margaret's Academy student, confirms her positive insight. "I've managed to socialise with people from different schools and I did not realise there were so many subjects you could take at university," he says.

A top attraction for both was creating a polystyrene building to withstand a wind tunnel buffeting. Ian originally wanted to become a vet but has moved on to an interest in engineering and may now be open to other options.

The pre-university course was one of six different summer schools run by West Lothian as part of its efforts to raise attainment and expectations. In the Silicon Glen authority, leavers can easily move into jobs without pursuing post-16 education options.

Other schools targeted groups of pupils moving into fourth and fifth years, and younger pupils moving from P3 to P4 but who have still to reach level A.

Fuelling the out-of-school innovation s a pound;600,000 New Opportunities Fund grant, spread over five years. West Lothian is one of the first authorities to successfully overcome the complex fund administration and is now advising others on lottery applications.

David McLean, extended curriculum officer, said the course allowed pupils from 10 different secondaries to sample university life a year before they go. "We have been focusing on presentational skills, confidence-building and aspects such as how to take effective notes. Although they do these things in social education programmes in schools, the message is stronger in a university context."

James Lamb, the university's education liaison officer, believes it right to concentrate on building self-confidence among central Scotland senior pupils. "We travel around the country and you see differences in the confidence of students. When we go to the south of England, they tend to be more communicative and sometimes this manifests in UCAS (admissions) forms. Scots sometimes undersell themselves."

It was important to help potential students appreciate higher education was a route they could easily follow. Details about the financial and social side to university were also important.

Janet Rougvie, Heriot-Watt's access development officer, says: "This is not about forcing people to come to university or Heriot-Watt but levelling the playing-field. If they are swithering about coming to university - because there is a lot of peer group pressure in certain areas where higher education is not the norm - this offers reassurance. They find people do not have two heads and a tail."

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