John Weierter admits he was a little sceptical when Fenton Robb from the Institute of Management Studies contacted him. Surely an assistant rector in a Scottish high school is busy enough without having to deal with outside organisations and yet more of their new initiatives to supplement the Government's own.
But before long, Weierter, deputy rector of Earlston high school, decided that the Certificate of Achievement scheme offered by the IMS - recently piloted in the Borders region - fitted in well with his school's Sixth Year committee system.
His concern is that the Sixth Year, with a relatively light examination load, can go to waste. "Students are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the start of the year, all tensed-up for their UCAS applications and concerned to get the best possible references.
"That's fine until Christmas but, by February, most have their acceptances in and you can see the lights going out. It can become a lost year, where the main thing students learn is how to be lazy," he says.
At Earlston, Sixth Year pupils are asked to form themselves into management committees. Each cohort devises its own structure, which usually leads to some reinvention as well as innovation. This year's group, for instance, decided to set up a Millennium Committee.
"There are several benefits. Committees provide services, such as work for charities or organising discos. They are useful for UCAS forms: students can point to experiences they have had and posts of responsibility they have held," says Weierter.
The aim is that students develop social and interpersonal skills. "The ability to operate within a committee system, to master its procedures, take responsibility for tasks being undertaken and be accountable for them, comes in useful."
But Earlston is not the only Borders school with a committee system. Kelso High School also has one. Rector Charlie Robertson, who brought the idea from his last job - at Earlston - says: "The committees aid students' social development, while the certificates reward work and skills that would otherwise not receive external authentication."
An IMS website features reports on committee work. One looks back on a year chairing a prom committee: "As chair, I called meetings, made decisions and kept a check on the committee ... I learned that working as a team wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. Getting people to stick to their allocated jobs or getting them to work was quite difficult."
Robb and the IMS offered the extra dimension of external certification, which has since been offered to nine schools in the past year under a pilot programme.
Robb, formerly professor of accounting and business methods at Strathclyde University and deputy chairman of Scottish Gas, admits that one purpose of the programme is to make IMS better known. It aims to do this by offering an extra credential that students can show universities and potential employers.
Robb describes the certficate as a "blank sheet of paper on which the student can write an account of their experience and how they learnt from it", adding: "The IMS symbol should, we hope, prompt employers to take it seriously and read it."
The Earlston committees also fit well into the "Working with Others" core skill under the new Higher Skill structure, an area many schools have found hard to certificate. The IMS, which also offers a "Looking Forward" option as preparation for the world of work, does not prescribe how schools and students should work towards certificates and does not impose specific standards. "We need to get away from those straitjackets," says Robb. "It is up to the school and the student how they use the scheme."
As a former employer, he has little doubt that it will be useful to people making appointments: "You are faced with large numbers of pupils with more or less the same academic credentials, which gives you little to go on. This is a different credential, a little shaft of light into the real person behind the application form."
Certification has prompted Weierter to put committees on a more formal basis. "In the past, they met during students' free time. Now, two periods a week are devoted to them. Minute and record-keeping became more formal, too. In October and November, each committee was asked to explain what they planned to do in the coming year. There was an interim report after Christmas and a final report in April.
"It was striking to see how far their skills in presentation had improved, how much more confident and upbeat they were speaking in public."
The students who took part will receive their certificates along with their records of achievement at the school's graduation ceremony. Weierter says:
"I think the project has done a great deal to take this aspect of the school's work and move it from the periphery to the core of sixth-year activities. We'll certainly be doing it again next year."
There is similar appreciation at the Wilton Centre, a supported education unit in Hawick for students with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Anne Wright, a teacher at the centre, tells of the success of student businesses set up as part of the Education for Work programme. "The kids get involved in the business and learn about working together, deciding what needs to be done and who does what.
"The IMS certificate is a good way of writing up what they learn from the programme and provides a useful extra item for their progress files."
Around 750 pupils will receive certificates from the pilot year. Robb looks forward to Borders students being able to earn up to six IMS certificates during their school careers, and to the wider application of the programme. He already has interest from the army, which thinks the certificate would go well with their system of camps for school students.
The Borders branch of the Institute of Management will be exhibiting the scheme at the EBP 2000 International Conference, Edinburgh, June 20-23. Sample reports can be seen on the IMS website at: http:robb.dial.pipex.com