The library at Braes High in Falkirk was packed with teachers, pupils, local authority officers, councillors and even Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, but the young people still stood up and said their piece.
Two years ago they had been among the most challenging their high schools had to cope with. They had low self-esteem, were often in-articulate and frustrated and angry. But they stood up with confidence to talk about their experiences.
Gavin Maxwell explained how, instead of leaving school with no grades, he was a greenkeeper working towards his qualifications. Belinda Lang, whose education was interrupted by pregnancy, told how she managed to return to school and to a pre-employment programme. And Andrew Walton showed how sampling various crafts enabled him to decide what he wanted to do.
Watching them were their headteachers and those from Falkirk's employment training unit, all of whom had witnessed their transformation. "These are not individuals where one chance is going to work. We have to come back and give them second, third, maybe more chances," said Pamela Smith, the employment training manager.
The approach in Falkirk appears to be working for some who were in danger of falling into the Neet (not in education, employment or training) group. They do seem to be joining the MC2 (more choices, more chances) group, as the SNP government prefers to call it.
Of the winter-leavers in 2008, the unit has helped 50 per cent into employment opportunities or training. Its targets for summer and winter-leavers for 2009 are more ambitious: 75 and 100 per cent respectively will be guided into training or employment.
One of the major successes for the employment training unit has been the relationships it has built with local high schools, such as Braes. Each school has been encouraged to create a vocational programme that suits its particular needs, rather than adopting a universal model.
At Braes, identified pupils are offered places on a Positive Transitions Programme where they go to school for two days and do work training with the unit until Easter. After that, they are found work placements until they officially leave school. They are typically those who would leave early, some with no qualifications; who have low attendance and when they come to school, manifest challenging behaviour in class. Getting them out of the general classroom has been a win-win situation for everyone in their year group.
"I like to refer to our motto - build respect and earn success: be part of it - whenever I make a speech," says Helen McCulloch, headteacher at Braes. "But these young people were not part of it. There were behavioural problems, disruption, referrals and low attendance."
With the transitions programme, the young people attend classes as a separate group from the rest of their peers, focusing on basic literacy and numeracy, social and employment skills and self-esteem and confidence building. Teaching is customised to their needs, leaving the other classes to follow a more academic approach undisrupted.
Braes' programme is in its third year and has become established in the school. Pupils and parents are coming forward to request places.
In the first year, 12 pupils began the course, but three were too troubled and left, and one returned to mainstream school. In the second year, the school was more canny about who it chose. Nine began and nine completed the programme. This year, 12 started and finished. "This year, there have been six girls and six boys. It just worked out like that, which is good. Although, in the past, it has been more weighted to boys," says Helen Malloy, the pupil support teacher at Braes who is responsible for the transitions programme. She is supported by Alex Smith, education co-ordinator at Falkirk council. "We've also got the support of the parents who are more engaged."
But it was the effect on behaviour and attendance during the year that best illustrates the programme's success. No statistics have been collated for this year, but in the 2005-06 session attendance for this group rose from an average of 74 per cent in the previous year to 91 per cent. In 2006-07, it rose from 74 per cent to 94 per cent.
Exclusions and referrals dropped. In 2005-06, there was one exclusion among the group, while referrals fell from 207 the previous year to six. In 2006-07, there were no exclusions and referrals dropped from 242 to two.
Alongside the work placement and the curriculum work, the group were also given a school project. They chose to refurbish a dismal outside area in front of the senior common room. In just two afternoons it was transformed. During that time, the young people spoke to passing teachers and senior pupils. "One pupil said that it was the first time a teacher had said something positive to him - ever," says Mrs McCulloch. "That's very sad and something we all have to think about. But doing the project enabled these young people to feel part of the school, possibly for the first time, and gave them an opportunity to give something back."
For Mrs McCulloch, the motto "Be part of it" means a lot, and to enable young people to share that has been a high point. Another was watching them talk articulately, if hesitantly, in front of an audience.
CHANGE OF HEART
Gavin Maxwell never liked school. It was boring, restrictive and frustrating. By the time he reached third year at Braes High, his attendance dropped and he was at risk of exclusion. "I didn't like the way teachers spoke to me. They never gave me any time," he recalls, admitting his future did not look hopeful. But during his third year, two years ago, he received a letter suggesting he join the Positive Transitions Programme. After a successful year on the programme, Gavin got a full-time job at Cloybank Sporting Estate. He is studying for his Scottish vocational qualification in greenkeeping and is enjoying it. "I have to get up at 6.15am every day to get to work on time, but I don't mind it. It is second nature to me now," he says. "I could never get up for school."
Photograph: Tom Main.