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Lending a helping hand to the elderly

Jackie Cosh talks to a team of Scottish Education Award winners who are doing valuable work in a care home

Jackie Cosh talks to a team of Scottish Education Award winners who are doing valuable work in a care home

As the Scottish Education Award winners were being announced in June, residents of Lilyburn Care Home in East Dunbartonshire were watching the event live online, eager with anticipation. When the winner of the enterprise and employability across learning award (primary and early years) was announced, they were delighted. "We won, we won," they kept saying.

The award winners, Craighead Primary in Milton of Campsie, East Dunbartonshire, are quite happy for the care home to share in their glory, and staff and pupils actually came in to see residents on their way back from the ceremony.

Lilyburn Care Home provides 24-hour nursing care for frail and elderly people and those with mild dementia. For the past year, children from the school have spent an hour-and-a-half on Friday afternoons at the nursing home as part of their "Skills for Life, Skills for Work" afternoons.

Working in the care home is one of several choices available to the children. These afternoons are a chance for every pupil in the school to take part in a range of activities - from jewellery making to abseiling, gardening to working in the care home. The home is always an extremely popular choice and the residents are quite happy about this.

"From Lilyburn's point of view, the residents get a lot out of it," says headteacher Fiona Leishman. "One resident who was not settling in and who was very quiet started to settle better. There are a lot of ex-teachers in the care home and they tend to go into teacher mode."

The children go along in groups of eight for four-week blocks, where they are given duties. This could be measuring out medicine, filling the salt cellars or helping in the kitchen, answering the telephone, filing or shredding. They play games with the residents and if bingo is played, the children will call out the numbers.

The relationship began in early 2010 with the school nursery children going along to the care home, playing board games with residents and helping with digging in the garden. Spotting that this relationship could be built on, it was agreed that Primary 4-7 children would visit once a week.

Ten-year-old Cameron Munro found that it wasn't what he expected and he enjoys his Friday afternoons at the care home. "I have filled up vending machines, made posters for them, played games, called out bingo numbers and played bingo. I like going down there and I sometimes chat to the older people. It's kind of easy," he says.

Jennifer McDonald, also 10, has worked in the office, taking telephone calls. "It was OK, a little bit weird," she says. "They told us what to say and said to then press the button to transfer over to them. I have helped with cooking and with sweeping, and have taken cakes round the residents and set the tables".

School staff who go with the pupils to the care home say the children are given opportunities to flourish and develop, demonstrating skills not so apparent in the school setting, and developing confidence, resilience and independence as they work on their own initiative.

Through the visits, they have begun to understand that the skills they learn at school are transferable. ICT skills have been used to make menus, and they have seen the importance of being able to read, count and tell the time accurately in order to be able to administer medicine. "Some pupils who are reluctant writers see the purpose in learning to write," says Ms Leishman. "They are very enthusiastic."

Rather than teaching skills specific to one job, the idea has been to give the children general skills that will be useful in the workplace since job profiles in future will change. "To be truthful, we don't know what jobs pupils will do. We have to teach them skills of communication, of getting on with people even if they don't like them - empathy, information gathering, problem solving," says Ms Leishman.

Having been finalists for the past three years, staff and pupils were delighted to win. "It was great," says Ms Leishman, "an endorsement of the work we have done. Curriculum for Excellence has made us look at what we do. We have had to take risks with it and this proves it works."

Quoting a list of life skills from Unicef's website, Ms Leishman says: "I believe these are the same as work skills - teaching resilience, how to meet a challenge head on, ability to take turns.

"They are going to need these skills. They will have to blag themselves into a job in the future. I don't want Alan Sugar in the school. I want 217 employable children."

Put your Skills on show

The children are offered a selection of activities for Skills afternoon. In jewellery making, they created their own designs and chose the beads. This has involved risk taking ("will Mum like it?"), helping others and team work.

At Heart Start, they were taught how to resuscitate someone. This has gone so well that the school is now going to train more staff and introduce Heart Start lessons for Primary 1 children.

Groups of older children visit a nearby abseiling centre, where they have learned resilience and the importance of taking turns and facing challenges.

One grandpa used to work at Glasgow airport, putting cargo on to aeroplanes. He has visited the school, setting the children problems of where to place the cargo in the plane.

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