A summer school with similarities to TV series `The Apprentice' is proving successful in helping youngsters better themselves. Henry Hepburn reports. It is a daunting challenge and the clock has started ticking.
The team must organise a prestigious conference - despite no experience in this line of work. That means working out costs, finding a suitably high- profile venue, and keeping delegates happy.
Three visitors are particularly demanding - they are flying in from New York with their partners and want a one-week holiday arranged for them after the conference.
At the end, in front of their peers, the team will have to explain what went right - and what went wrong.
It is a familiar scenario to viewers of The Apprentice, the BBC television show where tycoon Sir Alan Sugar sets demanding tasks for a group of young would-be entrepreneurs.
In fact, the conference challenge took place at Ayr College - but the similarity to the television show is no coincidence. Such challenges are central to the impressive success of a summer school, run for the first time this year, which aims to grab the interest of a group of young people aged 16 to 19, who might otherwise drift away from education, training and employment.
Many are from difficult backgrounds and appeared lost to education; most have been referred to the summer school by Careers Scotland, schools, social workers and others. Of 29 participants this summer, 25 have gone on to full-time further education and two are in full-time employment. There are only two students who did not make such progress.
Lee Chesterman, a youth development officer at Ayr College, said it was important to pitch the summer school in a way that would grab the students' interest. "I didn't want it to be just another course," he said. "With this group of people, we have to fire them up, we have to get them something that's going to interest them - and that was the idea behind The Apprentice."
The summer school offers a taste of work in several professions, including care, hospitality, marketing, media and tourism. The emphasis is on presenting students with real-life scenarios they might come across in such professions.
Mr Chesterman stresses the importance of playing up the practical nature of the summer school, since the students tend to have less than fond memories of formal education: "The first thing they say to us is: `It's not like school, is it?'"
That suspicion of formal education persuaded college staff to make an explicit link between the summer school and a television show familiar to the students.
Mr Chesterman concedes, however, that, while Sir Alan is renowned for his hard-nosed appraisals of his young charges' failings, the parallel does not apply in this regard. "We're not as blunt with our students," he says.
There is more to the summer school than such challenges though. Ayr College works alongside the Lennox Partnership - a not-for-profit economic development company - to provide support and guidance on CV preparation, interview techniques, building confidence, motivation and looking for jobs. Short work placements are organised with local businesses.
There are opportunities, too, to build on interests developed during the summer school with specially designed 27-week courses in care and construction, although some participants go straight onto conventional college courses.
These courses match the experience of summer school. They are more practical and there is a lot of support from tutors. They also offer a range of experience in care and construction, so that the student is not forced to plump for a career in an area when they may not be ready.
The summer school and the longer follow-up courses emerged from the Equal Employability Project, funded jointly by European money and the Scottish Funding Council, which sees Scottish organisations - led by Ayr College - working with colleagues in Finland and Lithuania on ways of getting people into jobs who might have difficulty finding employment.
Mr Chesterman stresses that there is only so much that can be done in six weeks, but students had clearly progressed by the end of summer school. "There was a fundamental change in their confidence," he says. "They were showing the ability to start applying for jobs and to talk to people. They grow up extremely quickly."
He points to one girl who was particularly difficult to motivate. She had problems with timekeeping, was sceptical about education, and wanted little to do with the rest of the class. She was, like a number of her classmates, wary of working hard and "looking like a swot".
But with a lot of patience and cajoling from her tutors, she made good progress, flourished in a work placement and has come back as a full-time care student.
John Irvine, a 17-year-old from Dalmellington, knew he wanted to be a chef but, like several of his classmates, had little idea about how to realise his ambitions. The skills and confidence he gained helped him get on a catering course.
Emma Hockings of Logan, a village near Cumnock, feels more confident about her ambition of going to art college in Dundee. "It's a lot better than school," says the 16-year-old, who is taking an art course with elements of design and media. "You feel more comfortable, they don't judge you. They treat you like adults. You won't get a row for talking, as long as you finish what you're meant to be doing.
"I couldn't be bothered going to school - the way teachers spoke to you, they made you feel second best. But I never missed a day at college."