Film-making project leaves girls at the Good Shepherd on a roll

10th September 2010 at 01:00
Creative media students at a Renfrewshire secure unit for the under- 18s already have a comfortable grip on the principles of Curriculum for Excellence; in fact, the proposed new approach ties in perfectly with their time-honoured ways of working

As schools across Scotland struggle to get to grips with Curriculum for Excellence, one sector of education is very comfortable with the ethos.

"As far as Curriculum for Excellence is concerned, we are ahead of others in practice," says Tom Lawrie, head of education at the Good Shepherd Centre in Bishopton, Renfrewshire, one of seven secure units for under-18s in Scotland. "We did it before it came into being. We are in a strong position to be able to work this way."

The Good Shepherd Centre opened in 2006 and houses up to 18 girls, with room for a further six in closed support. The youngest is 12, and they are sent here on social work recommendations, if they are seen as a danger to themselves or others, or through the judicial system, as a better alternative to Cornton Vale prison. They stay for periods from three months to three years.

All the girls attend school for 27.5 hours a week, with just a four-week holiday in the summer, a system which Mr Lawrie says works very well: "I don't want them in for seven weeks with no education, particularly those who are only in for a short period. There are no complaints about the short summer; it relieves the fact that they are in a secure unit, and they tend to ask when school is starting. In general, most buy into education."

As we walk around the school, Mr Lawrie's pride is clear. The seven purpose-built classrooms are bright, fresh and welcoming, and staff seem to have a good rapport with the girls, who all benefit from a pupil- teacher ratio of 4:1.

Levels of attainment prior to arrival vary; some may not even have a Scottish candidate number. But the teachers try to ensure all achieve some attainment while with them.

"We tend to start on SCQF Level 3," says Mr Lawrie. "With only four in each class, there is more one-to-one, and this allows us to accelerate them through their qualifications. The input and ability to contribute is greater, so they can achieve quicker. Some end up achieving Intermediate 2.

"We don't think in terms of linear, prescriptive learning. Yes, we want attainment, but we need to lead to it. The self-esteem they gain is important. These are girls who in some cases are gaining qualifications for the first time."

The girls go to taster sessions at college, and have attended an enterprise event at Braehead Shopping Centre, where Mr Lawrie says they outperformed many of the other schools. But one project in their school year stands out above the rest.

For the past three years, the girls have produced a short feature film and documentary, followed by a premiere and award ceremony where "Oscars" have been won by them in front of an invited audience.

A picture in Mr Lawrie's office tells the story of how it all began.

"Gavin Mitchell (Bobbie from Still Game) is a friend of mine," says Mr Lawrie. "A few years ago, he came in to talk to the girls - they were really excited and we got a few pictures. Then Sara Harkins, a producer with Children's BBC, who is part of the children's panel, was visiting and saw the picture. She said if we ever wanted to do anything with the BBC, to get in touch."

With many of the girls working towards their SCQF Level 4 creative media, this was an opportunity they weren't going to miss out on.

"Part of the course involves film-making, but with the BBC input we were able to scale up the project tremendously," says Tim Cullen, who teaches creative digital media. "The training was superb and was a resource we wouldn't normally have access to."

The BBC made a series of visits to the school, providing workshops on key skills such as directing, camerawork, and scriptwriting. Additionally, Mr Cullen worked with the girls in class: "I helped them on the technical aspects, working on storyboards with them, training them in software and hardware, and building on skills they already had."

Pauline Bonner, who teaches English and drama, organised the filming and was the producer. "At the start, I had no knowledge of filming, so it was a brilliant learning experience for me. The BBC showed us each part of the process," she says.

Working in this way was not new to her: "We have always worked in that vein," she says. "We have always brought subjects to life - action, not books. Yes, they do their qualifications and they have to do the paperwork, but we can still make it fun."

All the teachers get involved. "There is huge involvement from ICT, media studies, fabrics, economics people," says Ms Bonner. "It has been brilliant for pulling the school together. There is a buzz around the place when we are working on a film."

The experience is made more special by the fact that such a project is so new to the girls. "Some of these girls have never had anything to get excited about. They are proud of the part they play and you see their eyes light up.

"It appeals to the young people we have. It is so nice to be able to give something to these girls."

But things don't always run to plan. "The girls would go to a panel and would be released, meaning we would have to recast late," says Ms Bonner. "For the first film, this happened with the two major parts. But we always invite these girls to the premiere."

The premiere and "Oscar" ceremonies take place in January each year and are spectacular events. Invitations are sent to parents, board of governors, friends of the organisation, HMIE, the Care Commission, the BBC - anyone they think would support the evening.

"We deck the hall out with a red carpet and gold chairs, and we buy each of the girls a new dress," says Mr Lawrie, taking up the story. "Make-up girls from Clydebank College, as well as our own care staff, help them with their make-up and hair.

"Staff dress up as paparazzi, shoving microphones in front of the girls' faces, taking pictures and asking them questions - `Do you expect to win an Oscar tonight?' Other staff dress as waiters."

Then the film is shown to rapturous applause, before the nominees' names are read out - Judi Dench, Angelina Jolie . The winner may be the only one of the nominees present, but it does nothing to dampen the excitement. Every girl wins something - best actor, best director, best photographer.

Back in the real world, two pupils have been given time out in one of the classrooms. Maybe the time out has helped, or perhaps it is the mention of the show, but both are happy to chat away.

Kirsty, 13, was one of the actresses in last year's film and says she had done nothing like that before: "It was amazing, really good. The BBC were nice and told us loads of stuff. The premiere night was dead good. It felt real. I really enjoyed it."

It certainly wasn't what she was envisaging when she arrived. "I didn't expect to be doing something like this in a secure unit," she says. "It was weird to see all these people at a proper premiere. It impressed me."

Sitting with her is Louise, 15, one of last year's make-up girls. "I came in after casting, so was too late for a part," she says. "I went to the BBC workshops on clothing and on make-up. I'd like to be a beautician, or a make-up artist - maybe media make-up. I'd see what works."

This year's films are still in the planning - a comedy set in an old folks' home, a documentary of life in a secure unit, and several other smaller projects. The work may only last six months, but there is a feeling around the place that in the other six months, they are waiting for it to begin. Photographs line the walls, posters are still visible.

"They are exposed to the reality of that industry," Mr Lawrie explains. "They learn a skill and learn to use it patiently. Sometimes it is boring and sometimes the girls have to contain their behaviour and be patient. Sometimes they have to go over a scene again and again.

"The BBC were great and really were the driving force," he says. "They sent down people to talk about the industry, and what jobs there are. This fits in with the Skills for Work award."

One problem with this group of young people is that their future, in the past, has not been bright, says Andy Marjoribanks, head of education at the Howdenhall Children's Unit in Edinburgh and chair of a new Secure Accommodation Network, set up to share good practice and raise the profile of secure units. The network is running its first conference this week (Monday September 13), in Stirling, sponsored by the Determined to Succeed team at the Scottish Government. Its aim is to help colleagues across the seven schools to share their experience.

"We hope that the Curriculum for Excellence approach will provide better opportunities for employment," says Mr Marjoribanks. "It is not that Curriculum for Excellence was made for our type of schools, but that it lends itself to our type of work.

"It is about engaging the learner, active learning where the young person can directly relate to where they are with employability. We just have to work with young people in that manner. There is a lot of real-life work, developing planning skills, giving them confidence, celebrating efforts such as the show."

In Howdenhall, the pupils are working on a project called Our House. They have the normal curriculum in the morning, then in the afternoon they work on the project.

"The girls have made dolls' houses and furniture," he says. "We have taken in science by looking at energy and heat loss. We have covered geometry through measuring buildings and looking at the structure. With language and literacy, we do storytelling. We also had an artist come in from the Edinburgh Festival, and we have had drama workshops.

"We have a degree of flexibility, and we are trying to meet the needs of our young people more closely, to get them active and engaged, to get them to take responsibility.

"We have teachers who are multi-skilled and this is an advantage," he says. "Some of my teachers teach several subjects. It lends itself to interdisciplinary learning.

"One problem is that these kids present themselves in a bravado manner, but in reality many have very poor self-esteem. These opportunities give them confidence, so that they can build on their self-esteem, so that there is no need for bravado."

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