Game for a rural vocational route
Gamekeeping and land management are now a firm part of the secondary curriculum at a school in Perth and Kinross, following a move to reflect the background of its pupils and the importance of traditional skills to Scotland's economy.
A two-year pilot in gamekeeping at Breadalbane Academy in Aberfeldy has led to the course being expanded to offer practical sessions in agriculture and environmental conservation, with support from local land-based employers and the European Social Fund.
Alex Towns, the school's head of land-based studies, hopes the course will help to reverse the drift away from the countryside by young people.
"Living where we are, in highland Perthshire, we have so many children coming from agriculture and forestry backgrounds," he says. "Through this project we hope to nurture the skills and enthusiasm of our young talent and ensure a successful future for Scotland's land-based sector."
Mr Towns, a former senior teacher in the English department with a keen interest in shooting and fishing, took over as head of land studies when the original gamekeeping modules were extended to a full course last year.
He sees the course as a way of motivating pupils of all abilities and backgrounds.
"Not all the pupils are high academic achievers but many are interested in rural pursuits," he says. "We wanted to offer a more varied course for them than simply gamekeeping.
"We are showing pupils that the role of gamekeeper is changing and they are becoming more game and wildlife managers now."
The vocational curriculum course is open to pupils in S4 and above, although next year S3s will be able to take part too. About 20 students have done the course this year, and the school hopes to increase the numbers next year.
"So far the course has only been taken up by boys," says Mr Towns. "Not all of them come with prior knowledge but some have been driving tractors from the age of 12 on their farms.
"Next year some girls have opted for a fence building course, which is one of the skills in pretty short supply. Even if they are not going to work on farms, it could be a useful skill if they go into landscape gardening."
The course has also attracted pupils with special educational needs, who have particularly benefited from the hands-on group work, he says. "Some would have gone through their academic life having picked up a few Standard grades but that would have been it. One or two would have become a bit disenchanted. Now they are staying on longer and it has given them a target."
Three former pupils are now working as gamekeepers and three pupils on this year's course are going on to further education at Oatridge Agricultural College to continue land-based studies.
The pupils acquire a variety of practical traditional skills and develop important interpersonal skills, including how to work in a team and communicate effectively.
Specific projects undertaken have included building bridges and dry stone walling. In a recent project, the pupils built a winter corral for cattle.
They also have the opportunity to work with animals, learning how to shear sheep, scan ewes for lambs and give injections to cattle.
Now they are developing the Breadalbane Game scheme, a company run by the pupils, raising and selling pheasants for a local shoot and birds for the table.
"It introduces the spirit of enterprise to the pupils and gives them real experience of setting up and marketing a company," says Mr Towns.
"We have a ready market in that we can sell to staff and parents but we want to introduce more people to eating game, which is such a wonderfully natural food."
John Low, Breadalbane Academy's headteacher, says: "We hope that our pioneering work will provide a template for other rural schools and will encourage young people to consider a career in land-based industries.
"For us, this project has been a radical step to broaden the curricular opportunities for our pupils."
Mr Towns adds: "I think this is a model that many rural schools may adapt.
They are watching us to see what will happen."