Harris pupils realise potential of island through tourist guide

5th November 2010 at 00:00
Enterprise workshop gives seniors the chance to connect with local companies and hone their business skills in their own community

White sands, turquoise seas, a feeling of peace and some of the oldest rocks in the world make Harris a great place to live. But they don't put dinner on the table. So young people leave the island to find work or get an education, and often never return.

Theona Morrison, enterprise adviser with the local council Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, says: "The economic challenges here are obvious. But after the budget cuts, there are challenges everywhere.

"In some ways there are more enterprise opportunities in the Western Isles. It's about helping our young people to recognise these."

A workshop for adults in the community, run by Uist-based training provider Cothrom, presented an opportunity she was quick to recognise herself. "All sectors of society were there. It tapped into people's passions. I spoke to them afterwards and said we should be doing this with young people."

Further discussions led to Cothrom running a one-day workshop for senior pupils at Sir E Scott School in Tarbert.

"It gave the pupils a chance to feel part of their wider community," says business studies teacher Michael Mitten. "They were out of school, in a hotel for the day, making connections with local businesses and trusts, while we teachers deliberately took a back seat.

"It felt like a conference. They were being treated as they should be, like active partners. It was a very creative day with lots of energy."

Generating that energy is just the first step to a successful enterprise workshop with schoolchildren, says Cothrom's Thomas Fisher.

"You then have to harness it. At one point, we had 28 ideas written up on a huge chart along the wall, with 28 kids adding colour-coded dots to say what they thought of them - and when we do it in November, on Uist, we'll have 90 kids," he says.

"As a facilitator, you need the confidence that you can release that almost-chaotic energy. Some are deeply serious, others are silly. Everyone's having a good laugh. Everyone is running around."

While barely-controlled creativity is the goal, the way to unleash it is well-structured, he says. The programme is funded by the Scottish Government's Third Sector Enterprise Fund, and is an adaptation of a New Economics Foundation initiative developed in response to the collapse of mining in the East Midlands.

"Cothrom and the education department have adapted it for schools in the Western Isles, and will be rolling it out to the others," says Mr Fisher. "But it is primarily a low-cost initiative that energises whole communities."

The model would work around Scotland, he believes. "We've been talking to the Social Enterprise Academy, who have been partners with us on this, about extending it across Highlands and Islands."

That's an obvious next step for similar communities, but there are other possibilities. "It's being implemented in urban areas in Brazil, Honduras and South Africa, so I think it would work equally well in poorer parts of our cities."

The enterprise workshops can also be extended lower down the school and into the primary, Mrs Morrison believes.

"You run one first for all the adults who might work with young people in the community. So we had Skills Development Scotland, community education, the landowning trusts, the voluntary sector. Then, when you do it with the young people, they present their ideas to adults who already know what it's all about and share their passion. Their job then is to support them," she says.

"We also had the Social Enterprise Academy there, which listened to the young people and pointed them to good practice elsewhere with similar ideas. Their staff could also put the young people in touch with possible funders."

Enterprising ideas that emerged from that first Harris school workshop included converting Scalpay lighthouse into a tourist attraction, boat trips by local fishermen, reviving the local peat banks to provide energy for old people; and even creating a Western Isles currency to help generate economic activity.

There was a midge-killing machine, a tidal power scheme and a new musical instrument. But the idea that has really taken flight since the workshop was put forward first by S6 pupil Stephen Mackinnon.

"It's a tourist guidebook for Harris," he says. "There isn't one currently. There are wee books that give this and that, but not a definitive guide to everything - shops, places to eat, history, things to do and see."

Being definitive is an ambitious aim. "There are six of us in sixth-year and we're not short of work," says Donald Ian Maclennan. "We've formed a Young Enterprise company to produce the guidebook. We have weekly meetings. Stephen is the managing director and I'm finance director.

"We've been making good progress, doing the research, deciding what to put in it, talking to local businesses we met at the workshop, as well as to possible publishers. Then there's setting up accounts and selling shares. We're aiming to get it done by Christmas."

The hard part for both boys has been balancing the enterprise with working for exams, they say. While headed for university, both want to return to Harris if they can.

"It's a great place to live," says Donald Ian. "Very friendly and quiet with spectacular scenery."

Gaining confidence speaking to all kinds of people has been the big bonus to Stephen, he says. "It has been great working together and getting the chance to talk to business leaders.

"What I liked about the workshop was that they got us thinking for ourselves right from the start."

Cothrom: www.cothrom.net; Social Enterprise Academy: www.the academy- ssea.org; New Economics Foundation: www.pluggingtheleaks.org.

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