Final push helps school leavers scale new heights

17th December 2010 at 00:00
An Outward Bound course is filling usually apathetic S5 pupils with ambition in the run-up to Christmas

Outgoing, positive and keen to learn these Falkirk High pupils were not. Or so their teachers say. It's hard to believe now, as they chat engagingly in a cafe overlooking the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena. But it must be true. They say so themselves.

"I never used to go to school," says Jamielee Dixon. "Now I come all the time."

"I hated teachers being in my face," says James Campbell. "I went mental. It still bothers me a bit. But I can handle it now."

Fifth-year Christmas leavers are a problem for any school. They don't want to be there, but can't leave as they are not yet 16. It's a recipe for pointlessness and poor attendance, unless a school takes positive action - which is what Falkirk High has been doing with its Step Forward programme.

"These were disengaged and often vulnerable young people," says acting depute headteacher Stuart Kelly. "Quite a few have been let down badly by the adults in their lives. One boy's attendance was 5 per cent. It's now over 70 per cent. Others have gone from 40 to 90 per cent. These figures show how well the programme is working."

But stats don't tell the whole story. "The hardest part was an Outward Bound expedition," says Jamielee. "I couldn't take the weight of the bag and it kept making me fall. We hadn't even got halfway and I was sair, moany and wet."

What kept her going, she says, was the encouragement of her colleagues. It's one of the clearest differences in the pupils since they began the course, says headteacher Richard Anderson, who accompanied them in dreadful weather on the Outward Bound expedition through Gleann Suileag, and the following day's ascent of Meall Onfhaidh (2234ft).

"You could see their skills developing fast," he says. "They weren't confident at first in their new environment and were behaving as they normally would - just looking after themselves. But when they were out on the hill, you started to see them supporting one another.

"We were going up the ridge, and there was wind and rain and suddenly the valley opened out in front of us. A girl walking beside me, who doesn't often say much, turned to me and said: `Isn't that beautiful?' The rain was running off her head but her eyes just lit up."

The teamwork message was reinforced by other activities on the five-day residential course at Loch Eil, he says. "They had to talk to each other and work together to get these done. Their success depended on the team's success, which was a new idea for many. It clicked."

But it goes deeper than that, says young Megan Miller. "Before this course, I didn't help people. I used to get into trouble and get excluded. Now I encourage people and they encourage me. Most of us didn't hang about together. Now we do. It's like family. I'm a different person now, even in the house."

The Outward Bound part of the package is only one component, though a vital one, says Mr Anderson. "We had bits and pieces before, such as going to college for a day and an extended work-experience programme. But big chunks of the week they were in class, and the best they would get by Christmas would be a unit."

Faculty heads were asked to create alternative programmes of work and accreditation, says Mr Kelly. "We came up with all kinds of practical courses and qualifications they could complete in a term, such as the John Muir award for environmental awareness, the REHIS (Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland) food hygiene certificate and the British Safety Council workplace hazard award."

Financial education is being delivered by the maths department, while English provides CV writing, application forms and presentation skills.

A prominent feature of the programme is working with others to deliver it. So Forth Valley College provides adventure, culture and health and well- being days. "As well as practical stuff, we're opening their minds and broadening their horizons," says Mr Kelly.

Local companies have been enlisted to deliver the SQA safe road user award and City and Guilds in personal development - a process enhanced and accelerated by working with Outward Bound. "They come back from that achieving things they never thought possible," he says.

The final component of the Step Forward programme, he says, is an Activate co-ordinator from Skills Development Scotland, who works with the group and provides information on training and employment opportunities. "That will go on for a full year after they leave. So the support will continue over that hardest of school transitions."

It is difficult to see it in the youngsters today, but it did take time, he says, to win their trust and build relationships - although selling the course to participants in the first place was easy. "It appealed to them that it was a practical alternative to normal lessons.

"Pulling the whole thing together is the new National Progression Award in enterprise and employability at Intermediate 2, delivered by our enterprise co-ordinator Iona Henderson."

Enterprise activities make a huge difference to most young people, including the disengaged, she says. "But the effect of this programme has been greater than anything I've seen before. I used to be a support for learning teacher, so I've known some of them since primary school.

"Watching them make the transition to secondary and then their behaviour escalating, with revolving-door exclusions, was really hard. It's brilliant to see them now."

The big question of course is: will it stick? Can the youngsters' new- found confidence and zest for life, learning and teamwork survive the hardest transition, and the disappointments and difficulties life will soon start throwing at them?

"I was worried about that," Miss Henderson says. "The continuing contact with the Activate co-ordinator will help, and if they go to college there will be support there for them too.

"It's very rewarding to see kids who would face you up if you asked them to take their jacket off, being prepared to do anything."

Practical and social skills are part of this, but the core is resilience, says Mr Kelly. "These young people didn't have the ability to cope when things changed or got difficult. They lacked the confidence to get over the hurdles themselves."

Success can already be seen in the greatly-improved attendance and positive attitudes, says Mr Kelly. "But ultimate success will be seeing them using their new skills and attitudes to move on to training or employment."

James Campbell remembers the turning point for him. "We had to jog down to the loch and jump in. Nobody was going to do it. So I asked for a count of three and just ran at it. It was freezing. I'll remember it for the rest of my life."

James now wants to go to college and become a joiner. Jamielee is keen to study beauty therapy. Megan aims to pursue equine studies.

"I like horses but I never knew you could study them," she says. "We got to talk to people this term about what we could do after school. Now I know. This is an amazing course."

Achieving goals

Down on the floor of the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, Joe Ryan (pictured below), a senior instructor from Outward Bound's Metro centre in Glasgow, keeps a watchful eye on roped youngsters confidently scaling sheer walls above him.

"Lean right back to come down," James Cameron calls out to fellow pupil Jamielee Dixon, as he belays the rope she is dangling from, 30 feet above - and she does just that.

The days delivered by Outward Bound are about reducing the use of one word, Mr Ryan says. "What's that?" he calls out to the youngsters.

"Cannae," they call back, and he smiles and nods.

"I've been with them from the start," he says. "You work with them. Go in with the attitude that they have to do what you tell them, and you've no chance. Once they dig in their heels, you've had it."

Self-belief is the core of the Outward Bound course, he says. "They are more than capable of doing anything they put their minds to. If they go away believing that, I'll be happy."

Metro is the arm of Outward Bound aimed at young people in central Scotland who are not yet ready to go straight to a residential experience, explains head of centre Martin Davidson.

"It's about building relationships. So we do non-residential work with them, using the same Outward Bound way of learning - challenging outdoor experiences where they work as teams, then reflect on what they have done and learnt."

Following this, young people are often able to tackle a residential experience, he says - as the Falkirk High pupils did. A total of 10 days from Outward Bound consisted of three days' work with Metro, followed by five days' residential at Loch Eil, accompanied by Joe Ryan for continuity, and two of follow-up activities, including today's at the climbing centre.

"It is important for us to understand and fit into the bigger picture of what a school or youth organisation is trying to achieve," says Mr Davidson. "That's what we've been doing at Falkirk High."

Outward Bound Metro:

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