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Practical approaches to work

From painting and plumbing to perms and pedicures, all kinds of pupils are developing new skills, reports Douglas Blane

Maybe all school subjects will one day be so popular that pupils will stop teachers in the corridor and plead for a place on them. An unlikely scenario you might think, but it is happening with some subjects in some schools.

"We had 12 Skills for Work places this year," says Frances Mulligan, the depute headteacher at Holy Cross High in Hamilton. "So not everybody who applied could be accepted.

"After a morning in college, the boys on the construction course get off the bus and march across the playground in their big boots and South Lanarkshire overalls. We had to insist they changed into uniform in school, because a lot of them didn't want to."

Skills for Work courses, teaching vocational skills to improve the employment prospects of S3 and S4 pupils, were launched in schools across Scotland in August as part of A Curriculum for Excellence. Four courses are being piloted this session: construction, sport and recreation, early years education and childcare, and exploring financial services.

In a noisy workshop at Motherwell College, a dozen boys surrounding a long wooden bench are manipulating a maze of plastic pipework under the watchful eye of the lecturer, Tom Collins. Despite one lad's determination, the file he wields is making little impression on a large piece of pipe.

"You need a rough rasp for the chamfer," Mr Collins tells him, and the boy goes to fetch the tool from a wooden box.

"These younger kids aren't a problem," Mr Collins says. "I give them a wee talk when they come in, tell them this is the first day of their working lives. They like that.

"This is my second year of teaching schoolkids. I guess there was a learning curve, for us and them. I realised it was better to take a kid aside, have a quiet word, point him in the right direction. It works better at that age and makes them feel more secure in a strange environment."

He turns back to the lad. "That's good. Now you've put the chamfer on, you can take the rough edges off with the fine file you were using earlier."

"Oh, right," the boy nods.

"It's a lot different from school," Michael Birney, 14, says. "The lecturers are nothing like teachers. They treat you like adults.

"I really enjoy this. I haven't decided what I want to do when I leave school. So far I like plumbing best."

Bricklaying, carpentry, decorative painting and employability skills are the other mandatory elements of the two-year course in construction craft skills (SQA Intermediate 1). Optional elements include roof tiling, plastering and electrical installation.

A further education college teaching specialist skills is, in some ways, an ideal place for S3 and S4 pupils to get hands-on experience of these skills. However, sending schoolchildren to an adult learning environment cannot be undertaken lightly. Schools need to address timetabling, transport, financial and, above all, health and safety issues.

If every school had to form and maintain separate links with local colleges to tackle these issues, the bureaucratic burden would be overwhelming. So the advantages of a consistent and unified approach across an authority are clear, says South Lanarkshire's head of service, John Mulligan.

"We employ active breaks workers, who are youth workers in education, to accompany school groups to and from college, keeping a pastoral, watchful eye."

Mr Collins believes there are benefits to pupils coming to college to learn. "I'm quite happy going out to schools, which I also do, to teach this course," he says. "But in school, pupils still feel it is a class.

When they come to college and they're in a workshop like this, with all the tools they need and real machines and big folk working around them, the whole ambience is different. I think it works that bit better."

Selection of pupils for vocational courses is essential because of their popularity, and desirable to ensure the participants are motivated.

"These are not courses for disaffected kids," says Mr Mulligan. "They go through an interview process and are vetted formally by our personnel department. There's a bit of the real world to it, which gives them a feeling of self-esteem when they get through."

Organisation, planning and continuing contact between schools and colleges are handled at authority level through the post of vocational development co-ordinator, Simon Cameron.

"We make sure the kids know what is involved and expected of them," he says. "I go to schools and talk about the courses at parents' evenings and pupil assemblies. We have a DVD and booklets. We run a week-long induction programme for kids who are selected, when they go into college, meet the lecturers and make sure it's what they want."

Vocational development is co-ordinated from within corporate resources, so access to opportunities after completing a course is wider than if it were a purely educational initiative.

"I work with local employers to help them understand the range of skills that pupils who have completed these courses can offer," says Mr Cameron.

"It's as much about personal as technical skills. These kids are getting out of school, meeting different people, learning to work with them. They are managing their clothing, kit bags and log books. They're gaining confidence, a sense of responsibility and organisation and timekeeping skills - all very important to potential employers."

It is also important to the Holy Cross High pupils, says Ms Mulligan. "They feel quite grown-up, and you wouldn't get that if the lecturers were coming into school.

"It makes going to college when they leave school much easier, as it won't be the least bit intimidating for them, and they are getting used to the ethos of going to work."

Unemployment is not something on the cards for Robert Cook of Duncanrig Secondary, who is on the construction skills course at Motherwell College.

"My dad is in the police and so was my grandpa and my mum, so I might end up there too," he says.

"What I would really like to do is this," he points to the pipework on the bench. "With your own plumbing business in London you can make pound;60,000 a year."

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