Out of sight, but not out of mind

Henry Hepburn reports on a programme where a Gourock school keeps in touch with its former pupils - much to their delight

It is a rite of passage that some children spend years yearning for, the day when they can walk out of school and forget about it forever. But one Inverclyde school is keeping in contact with its leavers for up to six months afterwards - and ex-pupils are delighted to get the call.

St Columba's High in Gourock decided in 2006 that more support was needed for leavers, particularly those in danger of failing to get into employment, education or training. They are a big issue for the school, since many pupils live in deprived areas.

Careers Scotland already kept in contact with leavers who had signed up for one of its careers interviews, but at that stage only about half were doing so. Starting from the winter leavers of 2006, principal guidance teacher Joe Stevenson decided to telephone every S4-5 leaver, and most of those who had been in S6, to see how they were getting on. "I wouldn't necessarily take a pupil saying they're going to college as read," he said. "They could change their mind and slip the net."

It was not thought necessary to contact former S6 pupils who had secured places at university, but when it came to contacting the summer leavers of 2007 in September and October last year, that still resulted in phone calls to about 100 former pupils.

Calls are informal and often amount to little more than a brief catch-up. Some are lengthier, although Mr Stevenson does not recall being on the phone for more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Even so, he admits the work can be "time-consuming" and the school plans to lighten the load by asking clerical staff to make some calls.

Parents and former pupils are "surprised and genuinely pleased that we're talking to them". Some parents even keep Mr Stevenson up to date with what elder brothers and sisters have been doing.

He stresses that the aim "is not to put pressure on - it's to offer support". But if a former pupil is thought to need it, the school has a worker who will arrange fortnightly home visits to work out a way forward. One boy who left last summer was found to be struggling, but within a month of the worker making contact, he had started training in the building trade, which he is still involved in.

Mr Stevenson believes this type of work is crucial as Scotland moves towards a curriculum spanning the ages three to 18, and that A Curriculum for Excellence puts the onus on teachers to take responsibility for young people even if they have left school.

The contact with St Columba's leavers builds on extensive work done while pupils are still at school, with lots of help from Careers Scotland. Staff identify pupils from S2 who are potentially at risk, and schemes such as Activate, which works on skills needed in the workplace, help prepare for the outside world. "We raise awareness in school that there is a life after school at a very early stage," Mr Stevenson said. "We've got very, very few demotivated pupils."

In theory, the school will keep contact with former pupils for up to six months after they leave, but that period may be extended. Mr Stevenson said one boy who left last summer was still struggling, so the school remained in touch.

"Too often in the past, young people left and that was it," he said. "If there's a young person who has left who is not in employment, education or training, that contact will remain for as long as it needs to be there."

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