The great escapes of a great estate
The Queensberry Initiative at Wallace Hall Academy in Thornhill is proving that collaboration between schools and the community can change the trajectory of young people's lives.
A community partnership and a cross-curricular project designed to provide experiential, hands-on learning opportunities for the children and young people in Dumfries and Galloway, it grew from a casual conversation in 2008 between the school's headteacher, Barry Graham, and the Queensberry estate manager, who was a member of the parent council at the time.
"When I came to the school there were obviously opportunities, and the estate were very keen to work with us from the outset," says Mr Graham.
Three years on, the project has three members of staff and funding from sources including the Dumfries and Galloway Rural LEADER programme. It has also scooped the Enterprise and Employability Across Learning Award (Secondary) at the Scottish Education Awards.
The project links Wallace Hall Academy and its six cluster primaries in Mid-Nithsdale with the Queensberry Estate - a local country estate and "outdoor classroom" - and other businesses and voluntary organisations nearby, in an attempt to strengthen the employability skills of local youngsters and experiment with new ways of working with the estate on Curriculum for Excellence.
"We were aware there were strengths and weaknesses in work experience for our students and we wanted to address that," says Mr Graham. "With the Queensberry Initiative, we've simply tried to ensure that all students are ready for work."
Pupils began by working with vets, labourers and stockmen, concentrating on agricultural enterprise to give them a sense of the reality of employment and local work environments. But the experience quickly made staff and pupils realise how the estate could be used more widely as a backdrop for learning and job preparation.
As the project gathered momentum, the school seized the opportunity to adapt subjects to the local environment, with modern language pupils translating tourist material for the estate and English classes taking trips to woodlands to inspire creative writing.
The Queensberry Initiative has not just been about supporting school leavers but all pupils, and ensuring that the right people are matched to the right opportunities, Mr Graham says. "We wanted to provide more vocational opportunities: the chance to learn rural skills, construction skills, and to go on hairdressing and active tourism courses. We're continuing to look at the possibilities for these courses and we've had very positive feedback."
Vocational courses include rural skills, which combines classroom lessons on agricultural theory and employability with periods spent on the local farms, carrying out tasks such as dosing and injecting animals and scanning pigs. Construction skills, in collaboration with Dumfries and Galloway College, includes painting and brick laying, while forestry skills, in partnership with Buccleuch Estates, Barony College and the Forestry Commission, sees pupils undertaking tree thinning, planting and identification.
Work experience for S4, S5 and S6 leavers has involved pupils working in medicine at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, attending court with criminal lawyers, working in local schools and nurseries, and shadowing a local artist in their studio.
"Before the initiative started, it was clear that students were leaving school and not thinking about jobs in the local areas," says Mr Graham. "The profile of Dumfries and Galloway is that people retire here. I think we can work with the local economy and local businesses to change that perception."
The experience of the Queensberry Initiative and winning the Scottish Education Award has fired the imagination of everyone at the school, Mr Graham says - and turned the heads of other businesses, who are now keen to work with Wallace Hall.
"Social enterprise may be the next step," he says. "There are lots of possibilities for us, like growing willow and making it into baskets, or learning how to keep and look after bees."