Goal is to get back into studying and stick to it
Mr MacDonald has taken up a two-year post teaching 11- to 13-year-olds in the care system who have lost interest in their education and have been or are at risk of being excluded from school.
"One of the children has not smiled in four weeks," he says. "It is only this week we have heard her laugh and raise her voice. For that child, it is a huge change."
The Goals 4 Us project run by Highland Council is one of seven funded by the Scottish Executive last year to raise the attainment of children in care and give them an extra opportunity to find their strengths. Already three of the six children in the project's first phase are back in mainstream education, having previously been excluded.
"The problem with these kids is they had got out of the habit of learning,"
says Mr MacDonald.
"By the end of the programme they were coming five days a week, five hours a day and we were doing lots. We had quite a hard-nosed approach towards the end, with lots of chalk and talk, lots of worksheets. Our aim was to get them into mainstream education and get them to stick to it."
The project, which is based at the Highland Football Academy in Dingwall, involves a structured five-hour day with lessons lasting only about 25 minutes and input from drama and dance teachers. There is the added incentive of playing football and other sports.
The first course began with regular walks in the woods to build up trust in staff, confidence and, particularly, friendships, since these children find it difficult to sustain relationships with peers.
"These children are surrounded by adults," says Mr MacDonald. "They become adults in their actions but immature in their thinking. They need peer relationships. By allowing them time to interact with their peers in a safe environment, they stop acting like adults and start acting their age."
Some initiatives teach skills in a subtle way. "They thought we were just making a nature trail," says Mr MacDonald, "but they were learning to work as a group, give something to the community, show respect for property and give vent to their imagination."
A group of Primary 7 pupils living at home but under supervision by the local authority, who are thought to be at risk of being excluded when they attend secondary school, are now part-way through the eight-week course.
"I predict every one of them will make the transition to secondary school,"
says their teacher.
This month, Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, announced funding of more than pound;2 million for new programmes to maximise the potential of children in care and ensure all have access to the best education available. "They will help our most vulnerable kids be the best they can be and set them up with the skills they need for a great future," he said.
Almost exactly a year ago, he announced pound;2.25 million funding over two years for projects in Stirling, Glasgow, North Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire and Midlothian, as well as Highland, with children benefiting from individual tutoring, distance learning and home-school links.
The new projects will take place in Edinburgh, East Lothian, West Lothian, Falkirk, Fife, Dundee, Aberdeen, Renfrewshire, South Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway. The initiatives range from activities to raise self-esteem and trips abroad linked to studies, to a training support programme for carers and workers.
Steven Paterson, the acting director of the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care, believes improved educational attainment is key to children in care shaping their own destiny.
"The ability and potential of these young people is not reflected in their attainment levels," he says. "We have a long way to go but what is positive is the almost continual focus on education.
"It is not the case that they are not achieving because they are not capable. It is how you can support them to achieve their potential."
"If we take a child who is feeling vulnerable, who has got out of the habit of learning, and remove the vulnerability and give them a desire to learn, if we do that, even if nothing else, we have scored. We have done the job,"
says Mr MacDonald.