A rural skills course is not only giving pupils preparation for the world of work, it also bodes well for the future of the countryside
BILL AND Ben survey the novel events in the next field with that mix of rapt attention and total lack of interest that full-grown sheep do so well.
"They're a Welsh breed and very tough," says farmer and former teacher Daye Tucker. "They practically live on fresh air."
Humans have a tougher job these days, trying to scratch a living from the countryside. "You can hardly find anybody with the skills needed to work on a farm, and most of those are close to retirement."
"So this rural skills course at Balfron High in Stirling is good for the youngsters. They're doing something that really interests them while making themselves more employable. But it's also very good for the future of the Scottish countryside."
At the moment, Bill and Ben seem to be thinking this is not entirely obvious, as a group of third year pupils try with varying degrees of success to drive two fence posts into the un-yielding ground.
"Here James, you have a go." One of the girls who make up half the class of 10 takes a breather, and passes a very large hammer to her colleague, who swings it confidently and accurately at the long-suffering stab. "I'm a farmer's son," James Campbell confides later. "So I've done quite a lot of the things we're learning on this course before."
Even for young people like James - and there are several from farming backgrounds in the class - there are clear advantages in taking a Skills for Work course, rather than simply learning from parents.
"It gets me a qualification, and means it'll be easier to go to college when I leave school," says James. "I fancy land-based engineering. I know a few people who are doing it. This course will help me to get in."
For schools piloting the Skills for Work courses around Scotland, partnership is a key element. The Scottish Executive has "no preferred model", it says, but the majority of those that have been launched so far involve close working with a local further education college.
In the case of Balfron High, "local" is stretching it a bit, since Oatridge Col-lege, the nearest with the necessary expertise, is located a good 45 miles from the school. The school-college partnership is nonetheless working well, says pupil support teacher DiAnne Smith.
"Partnership with a range of organisations and people is the key to making this course work. Besides coming out regularly to Daye's farm, we also take the kids to places belonging to the Forestry Commission. We've had great support from Scottish Natural Heritage, and the funding came from Determined to Succeed through Stirling Council."
Rural Skills Intermediate 1 is accredited by the Scottish Qualif-ications Authority, which also produces a detailed course specification and guid-ance on teaching, learning and assessment.
"You can get them online, but we've given each of our pupils a printed version," says Ms Smith. "They love them because they look great, with clear instructions and nice drawings. They're also very flexible, so we can adapt them to our own kids' interests and abilities."
Besides delivering practical skills to pupils, the course has wider and deeper educational benefits, says Ms Smith. "Some of the children, when you see them in other classes, are like different people.
"We took them to an evening event in Stirling, not long ago, to publicise Skills for Work courses. I gave them all jobs to do, such as showing people around and talking to them. Some of them delivered presentations.
"I remember one young lad in particular who took his job very seriously. We had to remind him that he could go and take a break. He was telling people all about risk assessment, health and safety, everything he'd been learning on the course.
"The director of education was there, the chair of the school board, the provost. Our kids were mingling and chatting quite happily with them all."
The rural skills these young people are gaining are certainly valuable, both for them and for the future of countryside, says Ms Smith. "But they are learning much more than just rural skills."
Skills for Work courses are designed to deliver vocational skills and knowledge, as well as core skills, an understanding of the workplace and positive attitudes to learning. They are pathways to employment or further learning for pupils of all abilities.
The courses currently being piloted by 5,000 pupils in 70 centres around Scotland are: construction and engineering (Access 3); construction crafts, early education and childcare, sport and recreation (Intermediate 1 and 2); hairdressing, rural skills, engineering skills, hospitality (Intermediate 1); financial services (Intermediate 2); health and social care (Higher).
Rural Skills consists of three compulsory units - land-based industries, estate maintenance and employability skills - and two optional - animal husbandry and handling, or crop production and soft landscaping.
Skills for Work courses: