HIGH NUMBERS of homeless young people in a relatively prosperous area of East Lothian have prompted the authority to adopt a new approach to the problem.
"Information by young people for young people" was the slogan of a youth homelessness project begun by senior pupils and staff at Ross High in Tranent seven years ago. Then, like Topsy, it just "growed and growed".
Working with the council's homelessness service, education and children's services, Tranent Social Inclusion Partnership and the Bridges Project for disadvantaged youngsters, the Ross High pupils became involved in a new Housing Education Project that targeted all S4 pupils in the authority.
They produced education materials that won a National Social Housing Award and by 2001 the Housing Education Partnership was born.
In three years, the project, aimed at preventing homelessness, developed to include:
* environmental issues - in particular, energy awareness and waste education, delivered in partnership with Changeworks, a charity that aims to protect the environment;
* debt education - in partnership with the Citizens Advice Bureau;
* credit and finance lessons - in partnership with the Royal Bank of Scotland.
"These are all vitally related and of practical concern to any young person leaving home, whether for work or further study," says Hilary Hall, English teacher and HEP project officer. "It's about independent living and avoiding the pitfalls of debt and, in a worst case scenario, homelessness.
At the same time it promotes citizenship values, the five core skills and active participation in the local community."
Following a school inspection in 2004, the expanded course was declared "an example of national good practice" by HM inspectors. Encouraged by their response, Ms Hall worked with a voluntary group of 24 fifth year pupils on a homelessness multi-media project to provide new materials for schools'
presentations and to fulfil SQA requirements for what had developed into an Intermediate 2 course on Working with Others.
Last October, the SQA gave Ross High's Working with Others course - two NQ units at Intermediate 2 and Higher - a national launch. Nine sixth year pupils gave a multi-media presentation on homelessness to more than 100 educationists and received a "tremendous ovation". Two of the pupils gave a further presentation on climate change to a committee of MSPs at the Scottish Parliament last month, to mark Environmental Awareness Week.
Pupil involvement in the community has been crucial to the success of the housing project and the new SQA units.So has the introduction of outside speakers. "For example, senior pupils have voluntarily attended evening meetings to join in a community consultation on affordable, sustainable housing," says Ms Hall. "During summer holidays they have met with housing professionals to join the speaker programme, and they have helped HEP provide fresh, contemporary, pupil-friendly materials."
A speaker programme is central to the Intermediate 2 unit. This covers independent living skills, healthy lifestyles, financial education, mental health awareness, homelessness, the law, energy awareness and sexual health. Presenters from the public and voluntary sectors, from community policemen to mental health workers, provide up-to-date information and advice, giving pupils an opportunity to learn from experts.
Pupils have to do a project on one of the speaker topics and, working in groups, to choose an issue to research. In the process, their independent learning skills and their teamworking abilities are developed. All pupils keep a diary of their personal activity for documenting, planning and checking progress. At the end of the project, the groups give a public presentation in a format of their choosing - from PowerPoint to film and slide materials.
S6 pupil Steven Voy, who took part in both the SQA and Scottish Parliament presentations, describes the Intermediate 2 course as "ground-breaking".
"I'd say we used to be people who accepted the stereotype of the homeless as either drug addicts or drunks. But when you get to interview them, when you get to know them even a bit, you learn that this is just not the case,"
"I learned a lot doing the homeless presentation. The course lets you look at less academic subjects and to work with your peers. It's enjoyable, not only because it's different, but because it's well structured and good preparation for university."
His co-presenter and classmate Amy Nastaszczuk found the communication and teamworking skills invaluable. "It's the only subject you really get the chance to talk in, to develop presentation skills, with the exception of English," she says. "It gives you a lot of confidence, especially after you've spoken to MSPs and the SQA.
"With a wide range of topics such as healthy living and mental health to choose from, the course spreads awareness of real issues. It promotes citizenship and is more valuable than personal and social development, because it's more real."
"Before the Working with Others courses were introduced, pupils often considered PSD as something of a 'skive'," says Ms Hall. "I think Working with Others is more structured, more relevant and more engaging for pupils, and in my experience they do find it more meaningful."
S6 pupil Graeme Mulhearn is directly concerned with environmental issues, as a result of his group project. "The first benefit is learning about the damage being done to the environment by pollution and how and why you have to warn people about this," he says. "I'm going to present on how much - or how little - environmental issues occur in the school syllabus and to what extent pupils will actually encounter them.
"We've not found much in the syllabus. In a lot of subjects there's nothing; in others, 3 or 4 per cent. It makes you think something should be done about it."
Graeme is enthusiastic about Working with Others and enjoys doing the research "because it's more like real life than school work. I'm learning about fact finding, investigative skills, internet research, handling statistics and putting them into graphs, as well as numeracy, communication and presentation skills and working with others.
"It's better than PSD because it's up to you what you want to present on.
It's more self-reliant and has more direction and point to it."
For fellow S6 pupil Andrew McKenzie, the project and presentation are what make the big difference, "because you're studying what interests you and what is going to or what might affect you in real life.
"Last year, I found out a lot more about how people became homeless. As part of the filming and editing team, I learnt how a young person might leave home and be 'sofa surfing' around family or friends' houses. They're 'roofless' but not 'homeless'. I learnt what life on the street was really like.
"I learnt to work with others and that putting a presentation together with eight other people can be frustrating when there's only one outcome. But it teaches you how to interview, take responsibility and work as a team for real," he says.
"You don't get that sitting in a classroom."
Teamwork is vital in today's workplace and Ross High's Working with Others units touch directly on core skills in A Curriculum for Excellence. But what makes the learning of life skills at the school a success, in Ms Hall's book, has more to do with engaging with pupils in the development of the course and encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning - as well as the enthusiastic work of the guidance staff who have driven the courses for five sessions now.
The Ross High Working with Others course is now compulsory for all S5 pupils in the school and will shortly be posted on the SQA website for other schools and presenting centres to use or adapt to their own needs.
PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE
Homelessness in East Lothian began to increase in 2000 as a result of population overspill from Edinburgh, mainly of professional people, Hilary Hall says. "Price increases, coupled with a shortage of affordable single housing, was making it difficult for young people to find accommodation, never mind get on the property ladder.
"Youth unemployment is relatively high and there are a lot of disadvantaged young people in this semi-rural authority. Getting geographically isolated young people into work is difficult. The biggest employer in the area is the council itself.
"East Lothian carries a large, hidden homelessness problem because extended families and friends will still absorb the young homeless - or 'roofless'.
But there is a limit to how much and how long 'sofa surfing' will be tolerated by families, friends and the young people themselves.
"The largest single cause of rooflessness is family strife or break-up, and part of our message has always been to discourage young people from looking for hostel accommodation in Edinburgh, because most end up quite quickly presenting on the streets as homeless.
"That's why we began in June 2000 with a two-day induction by the Musselburgh-based Bridges Project, which works with young homeless people aged 16 to 21, providing advice, training and advocacy.
"They showed our senior pupils what the implications of homelessness were.
In a sense, we wanted to shock the pupils who would lead the project into appreciating the realities of homelessness, so that they would get the seriousness of the issue over to the S4 pupils.
"Since its inception in 2001, the Housing Education Partnership has been education-driven and the approach has always been preventative."