Sessions on Skye give troubled teens a lift

Intensive work away from college helps struggling students to realise their potential

Jackie Cosh

The majority of the students on the NC digital media computing Level 4 course at Central College in Glasgow left school with no qualifications. Some had been in trouble with the police. Some had been bullied. Others had a history of poor attendance at school.

But confident that these students could do well, the college accepted the youngsters and began looking for a way to help them. And Columba 1400, the charitable leadership training organisation, appeared to offer what they needed.

"We needed something to release the large amount of potential there and thought this would be brilliant - it was just what we had been looking for," recalls course leader Sheelagh Carlisle.

That was at the start of 2008. Since then, four groups of students and staff have been to the Columba 1400 centre in Staffin, on Skye, for six days.

Mrs Carlisle says: "We were used to students with qualifications. Some of these students had no idea how to behave but, since Columba 1400, their language, behaviour and motivation have improved. Some are now doing the HND. One boy from Somalia had seen some horrific things; Columba 1400 helped his healing process."

Mention Columba 1400 and people automatically think of the outdoor activities - mountain climbing, canoeing, the search and rescue. But for those who have been, this is just one small part.

"The outdoor activities are just a way to break the day up," Mrs Carlisle says. "The day starts at 8am with breakfast and they are busy until 10pm. There are lots of group activities to think about different traits, such as motivation and integrity."

The centre is full of small rooms with couches, where groups can gather with the staff. But no coaching takes place. Instead, questions are put to the students to encourage them to consider what makes a good leader: identify someone famous who has impressed you; think of the qualities in them you admire. Think of someone you know that you admire: what qualities of theirs do you admire?

"It is subtle," says Mrs Carlisle. "They don't put words into their minds. And it was interesting to see who they admired - Barack Obama, William Wallace, Margaret Thatcher, their mum, their brother.

"They had to set goals, to write why they were important, and what would happen if they didn't keep them. We worked on teamwork and learned what type of leader they could be, and discussed how you could also lead from the back. It was a frantic week, emotionally and physically."

Greg Bajor, 19, is originally from Poland. "I now have better relationships with the students and with the lecturers, and understand people more," he says. "I feel more involved in the group."

Thomas Prentice, also 19, is from Cranhill in Glasgow. "It was pretty awesome," he says. "I liked the outdoor activities but also enjoyed the group work. It helped me think about things and I came back with a stronger sense of self, more positive and with more ideas for the future."

Before each trip, staff from Columba 1400 visited the college to prepare the students and to have an icebreaker session with them. During the session, students had to write down their hopes and aims for the week. At the end of their week in Skye, there was a graduation and all were asked if they had achieved their aims.

Some of the changes have been immediately clear. "One boy has Asperger's and swears a lot," recalls Mrs Carlisle. "He worked on it all week, as he was starting to find it embarrassing. He now doesn't swear."

But, aware of financial constraints, the college knew a long-term plan was needed, and came up with a college-based course called Merit - motivation, endurance, respect, integrity, teamwork.

"Financially, we can't do the trips to Skye for ever," says Mrs Carlisle. "We decided to take Columba 1400 to the students, and created Merit. We put together workshops and started training staff. So far, 40 have been trained. The focus now is on bringing Merit to all NC classes, with weekly classes throughout the year. It will fit into a personal development module."

Caroline McCall, lecturer in business management and a Merit facilitator, says: "It is the way forward, as not all colleges can afford to go to Columba 1400. It is about taking elements of Columba 1400 and showcasing them."

Using Columba 1400 as a starting point, the course brings in other aspects of teaching, such as Curriculum for Excellence and Assessment is for Learning.

Mrs Carlisle says: "I have always been aware of the psychology of teaching. Columba 1400 tied it in and made us realise what a horrendous background some of these students had come from.

"We may be the only friendly face they see in a week, so it is important that we don't shout at them. It was thought-provoking stuff and good to bring into the classroom.

"Old-style teaching doesn't work. This gave me the confidence to keep doing what I have been doing anyway, but on a higher level."

Every student who went to Skye last year moved up to Level 5 and there has been a 100 per cent retention rate among them.

"For the students, it gives them confidence in their own ability and helps them realise their full potential," says Mrs Carlisle. "It is not just down to their time at Columba, but to what the staff here have learnt and brought back."

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Jackie Cosh

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