Vocational options give greater breadth to the curriculum and can suit less academic, more practically minded pupils. Douglas Blane reports on the success of Glasgow's skills programme
It is the morning of the St Valentine's Day disco at Govan High, in Glasgow, and some of the first year pupils are dancing in the assembly hall to the pounding beat of Love Inc. Through the open windows a wall of sound blasts across the car park, over the school playing fields, towards a handful of cranes dominating the council houses on the south banks of the Clyde.
"Reach for the sky and hold your head up high, for tonight and every night you're a superstar."
It's a great message for children growing up in an area where fewer than 10 per cent go on to higher education and unemployment is a common prospect.
The future is brighter, however, for Siobhan McNeill and Lee Tocher, two 14-year-olds who have already gained valuable experience of jobs through Glasgow's pre-vocational programme.
"I've been doing horticulture since August," says Siobhan. "It was my second choice but I'm loving it."
Lee was lucky enough to get a place on his first choice course, sport and leisure.
The pre-vocational programme offers practical alternatives to non-core Standard grade courses and has been commended by the group set up by the Scottish Executive to review the principles and practice of education for work and enterprise. More such initiatives, it said, would help the economy by providing much needed skills, a flexible approach to non-academic qualifications and a varied school experience focused on the interests of individual pupils.
"Early feedback from the Glasgow programme suggests the benefits include improved attendance, motivation and achievement," says the group's report, Determined to Succeed: A Review of Enterprise in Education.
Now in its second year, the programme originated as a way of plugging the skills gap in the construction industry. Recognising its wider merits, Glasgow City soon set up a cross-disciplinary team, led by depute director of building services Robert Booth, to extend the scheme to other areas of existing or predicted skills shortages, initially administration, horticulture, sport and leisure, hospitality and care, health and fitness.
Another option, business and financial services, will be added to the programme in June and motor mechanics is likely to be introduced the following year.
"We are taking it a step at a time, making sure the options we provide are in sectors that are vibrant and have jobs available," says Mr Booth, "because at the end of the day the positive outcome that young people are looking for is jobs."
The staff at Govan High has warmly embraced the education for work agenda, appointing Derek MacDougall in 1999 as principal teacher to manage and co-ordinate the school's efforts in that area. The benefits of sustained management support are readily apparent in the school leaver statistics, he believes.
"Three years ago, 32 per cent of ours went straight into unemployment but our latest figure is 13 per cent. We've gone from well above to well below the average for the city as a whole," he says.
Mr MacDougall describes the pre-vocational options, which are offered to all pupils at the end of second year, as "fantastic for youngsters who enjoy the practical side of things". A third of all Govan High pupils in S3 and S4 now take one of the options as an alternative to a non-core Standard grade subject.
"The vocational options give greater breadth to the curriculum because Standard grades do not suit everybody," he says.
"They're getting the kids one step, maybe two, up the jobs ladder because at the end of the course those taking part will have the equivalent of a one-year apprenticeship, which will make them much more employable. In the first year of any apprenticeship you cost a company money."
As with other popular choices, there is some selection. "We look for kids with reliability and commitment," he says.
Currently 1,100 pupils from Glasgow's 29 secondary schools are taking part in the pre-vocational programme and the figure is set to rise to 1,800 this year, when 300 students on the first intake complete their courses and a further 1,000 places (including the new option) become available.
The programme is supported by pound;1.5 million from Glasgow City Council, the Scottish Executive and the European Social Fund. Mr Booth says: "Apart from anything else, we are transporting kids all over the city, so you can't do it on the cheap."
Each vocational course includes two periods each week in the workplace and one period in the classroom studying skills such as teamwork, stress and time management and assertiveness, which will stand the pupils in good stead in any job.
The programme was highlighted at a recent conference hosted by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which expressed the hope that the Glasgow example will be followed elsewhere in Scotland, "and we certainly want to help in making that happen".
"Representatives from all the local authorities in Scotland, as well as the Scottish Enterprise network, were invited to hear about our model," says Mr Booth.
"The SQA said they would support this type of initiative anywhere in the country. In the north-east, for example, there might be a need for vocational options in the fishing industry.
"Dundee already offers vocational options but as yet only in construction.
A lot of other people are now talking about vocational education but I'm not aware of any scheme with the same scope and ambition as ours.
"In England they have just launched a vision for vocational training that will allow youngsters to drop a number of GCSEs, but I think that's going too far, almost letting them abandon traditional school studies.
"Here in Glasgow we make sure the youngsters understand that the vocational courses are challenging and testing. They are not an easy option, nor a way to escape from normal schooling."