'Don't let them slip through the Neet'

5th May 2006 at 01:00
They call them the Neet group: young people not in education, employment or training. Douglas Blane visits a school that is helping to restore motivation to lives that have none

The green fields and sparkling seas of Ayrshire's tourist routes hide a harsher reality. Coal mines that scarred the landscape yet brought prosperity have gone, but their passing has left deeper scars in mining communities, and teenagers struggling to find some purpose to their lives.

All too often they fail and end up swelling Scotland's unenviable statistics for young people not in employment, education or training - the Neet group.

In a wooded valley among rolling hills, East Ayrshire's elements of the picturesque and post-industrial come together in Cumnock, where headteacher Gordon Bell has been making strenuous efforts to keep his pupils out of the Neet net.

"We've been using a range of methods at Cumnock Academy to change the outlook for these kids - vocational college courses, sending a group each year to Strathclyde University's summer school. But we needed to do more."

In a quiet room at the back of the school, there is an air of celebration as children troop out to receive certificates and a round of applause from the Careers Scotland workers who have been teaching them on a course to raise their motivation and improve their outlook on life, work and education.

The friendly, purposeful atmosphere at the end of the four-day series of workshops is unmistakable, but a little surprising given the nature of this fourth-year group, which consisted, according to 15-year-old Thomas on his first day, of "the daft, the stupid and the badly behaved".

It is a description vigorously disputed by Anne Philips of Careers Scotland. "They're a lively bunch but they've been great," she insists.

"Mind you, that first afternoon was a bit of a nightmare, until I said 'Listen I'm not a teacher. If you don't want to be here, we'll take you back to class.'"

Since the best part of the course to some of its most vocal participants was that "it wisnae school", this proved a potent threat, giving Ms Philips and her colleague Jim Hill time to build the rapport needed for the months ahead.

"I'll be coming into the academy two days a week to work with these kids and help them find jobs or training for when they leave," says Ms Philips.

On paper, the course seems like standard stuff about positive thinking and is not obviously the kind of material to connect immediately with Cumnock's disengaged or disillusioned. But a quick survey of the class of 15-year-olds suggests the motivational message has got through and a little of the necessary foundation has indeed been laid.

"I've learned about setting goals for myself, and then, if I think about them and visualise them, I'll get there," says Jamie. "I think it works."

"I've learned about scotomas," says Thomas. "That means blind spots. We've all got them. So you don't see everything that's there or that you can do."

"I've learned not to put folk down," says Andrew. "I used to do that.

I want to stay on at school now and do PE."

The practical, interactive nature of the course has undoubtedly made a difference.

"Visualising goals is something you have to work at," says Ms Philips. "So we did this wee exercise where you would imagine walking through a garden, into a house and through to the kitchen. Then you open the fridge door and the bright light hits you.

"You take out a lemon, peel the skin, bite into it and taste the juice.

"When you get to that part you can see every one of them screw their face up as if it was a real lemon. It's very effective."

But exercises alone will not break through the barriers: human connection is the key to these workshops.

"Just remind me," Ms Philips says, enlisting the school's most celebrated former pupil as role model, "what does Tom Hunter (the multi-millionaire tycoon) do when he achieves one of his goals?"

"Sets himself a new one," the class replies.

"It's something I'll have to do myself now that my weans are grown up," Ms Philips shares a bit of herself with the class. "My goal for the past 20 years has been to give them a good start in life. I'll have to find new ones soon."

That human touch is vital when trying to reach out to teenagers in danger of joining the Neet group, says headteacher Gordon Bell. "Kids become part of that group for all sorts of reasons and we have to try different things to keep them out. All the time we have to make them feel valued, so they don't think we don't care about them."

As a new community school, Cumnock Academy has been able to set up a core support team, with members from across the services - teaching, nursing, home-link, social work, youth counselling.

"Anne Philips can draw on these when she's doing her one-to-one interviews with the kids," says Mr Bell. "So they can drill down and find out the barriers to working or training, whether these are mental, physical, social or family reasons."

Good role models are often absent, says depute head Ian McCulloch, who leads the core support team. "Some of the kids are being brought up in families where fathers and mothers - and we're even getting to the stage of grandpas now - have never worked.

"If the family is the root cause of the problem - whether it's unemployment, poverty, drink, drugs - we can send in a member of the team to work with that family and improve the kid's life-chances."

On the positive side, the school now offers vocational courses at Kilmarnock College.

"Kids identify a vocational area where they've career aspirations - car mechanics, hairdressing, painting - then one morning a week they travel to Kilmarnock," says Mr McCulloch.

"They might be doing six or seven Standard grades instead of eight, but that's fine. They are learning valuable skills."

The academy's most recent initiative to improve the prospects of all its pupils arose from a leadership course attended by the headteacher and some of his staff at the Columba 1400 centre on Skye.

"We need good leaders among the pupils as well as the staff," says Mr Bell.

So last autumn 13 third-year pupils, selected by interview, went to Skye to take part in the centre's Ambassadors programme.

"I think it changed them all, and quite a few of them did need to change,"

Mr Bell says. "Some talked too much and learned to listen; others gained the confidence to speak out.

"Some were already leaders but in all the wrong ways. A few, according to some teachers, should have been out of the door instead of going to Skye.

It changed them all, I think, but the best people to ask are the pupils."

Katy is 14 and was one of those who "talked too much", she admits. During the course of the week in Skye she learned to listen, "What appealed to me was the combination of physical and mental challenges. It was quite emotional too. At some point every one of us was in tears."

Jordan, 15, was keen to change. "I could be quite mean. All the stuff we got there really made me think. There was a picture challenge where you had to pick out the ones that appealed to you and say why. I picked a picture of the pyramids, which reminded me how great it would be to be an architect."

The purpose of the exercise was to find three images that connected with thier past, present and future, explains depute head Myra Hessett, who accompanied the Ambassadors. "Thinking about happy times in the past was an emotional exercise for all of them."

At 6ft 3in, Jordan is not going to admit to shedding a tear. "But I was maybe greetin' a wee bit on the inside," he confesses with a smile.

Permeating all the activities at Columba 1400 are its core values for responsible leaders: awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service.

"I remember focus and awareness," says Sherie, 14. "We worked on those the day we climbed the Quiraing.

"We were aware of what was going on all around us, while we focused on getting to the top and working as a team."

Perseverance is what sticks in 14-year-old Russel's mind. "The whole last day we were supposed to be villagers trying to save our island from developers. We had to use all our skills and work together as a team.

"We just kept at it. We didn't win but we completed the task and worked really well together."

Articulate, mature and interesting, the Ambassadors have clearly benefited as individuals from their Columba experience.

"They gave a presentation to their parents, who were blown away," says Mr Bell. "They couldn't believe it was their wee boy or girl standing up there."

The benefits to the wider school community are potentially even more valuable, says Mr Bell.

"I'm providing time, space and funding for these kids to keep working together as a group in the school. They have already set up an anti-bullying initiative, and are working with younger pupils in S1 and S2.

"We're going to send a group to Skye every year now, and we're talking to East Ayrshire and Columba about setting up something similar locally at Glaisnock House, so more kids can get that leadership experience.

Eventually we will have a critical mass."

Young people heading for the Neet group can be identified well before they leave school, says Mr Bell. "You can just accept that and do nothing, or you can try to do something about it.

"At Cumnock Academy we choose to do something."

Columba 1400,www.columba1400.com Centre for Creative Leadership, www.ccl.orgPacific Institute, www.pacificinstitute.co.ukpagesproductsBreakthrough.asp

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