Helen hatches an innovative plan

18th January 2008 at 00:00
A winning smile and persuasive personality helped teacher Helen Bull become Highland Council's Employee of the Year 2007.

Linda Schubert, headteacher of Drummond School in Inverness, nominated Helen for the award after she developed a programme which opened a world of new opportunities to pupils. It would be difficult to think of an activity Helen missed in plans for her innovative school-leavers' programme.

Pupils at the school have a wide range of additional needs and Helen noticed some were at a loss after they left school. Today, photographs line the school corridor showing how that gap has been filled.

"When they are at school we provide everything for them and then, as soon as they leave, the mechanisms fall down. They haven't got their friends and they haven't got all the things we provide," says Helen, acting principal teacher at the school for pupils aged three to 19.

Her initiative has been rewarded by Highland Council who chose her as Employee of the Year in recognition of the opportunities she developed for school-leaving teenagers. Pupils gave a presentation on the programme at a recent seminar and Aberdeen University is using it as evidence of good practice in a research project on learning support.

The list of pupils' activities is endless - they have joined a gym, they have learnt first aid, they know how to book tickets for a rock concert at a local venue, they have lounged in the jacuzzi, and visited the optician.

They can put up a tent, swim a mile, go for a cup of coffee, visit the library - they've learnt about sex and drugs and drink, how to look after their feet and how to ski. They have learnt to have fun and - most valuable of all - they have new-found confidence.

"We have been thrilled and delighted at how well they have done - kids who three years ago wouldn't have made eye contact with you and who wouldn't have spoken," says Helen.

She moved to the Black Isle from England six years ago and, with her teacher husband, set up Glachbeg Croft, an environmental education centre, another resource enjoyed by Drummond pupils.

"It is open to anybody from one to 100 and beyond," laughs Helen, "because my grandmother is 103 and she comes and learns things. When she was 100, she held a lamb for the first time. She said 'I've never done this and I'm 100-years-old'."

The working croft opened two years ago and the couple keep cattle, chickens, ducks and rabbits and are able to offer work experience opportunities to Helen's students.

Initially, Helen started her programme for girls at the school with trips to the shops and excursions for everything from manicures to bra fittings. But the boys soon cottoned on and, since then, the venture has grown, with the pupils very much in the driving seat.

"We got three classes involved and asked them the types of activities they wanted to do. They wanted to go to the local football club and they've been to the local radio station. They've talked to the police about keeping safe.

"The charity Pets as Therapy came into school and they learned how to look after animals. They built a sensory garden with raised beds and tables for disabled pupils, so they can be involved as well," Helen explains.

The programme has delighted and amazed parents who have seen their children grow in confidence as they take on new challenges which boost their independence.

"We want them to have as full a life as possible when they leave, so they feel relaxed and know they can do it, because we have done it regularly with them," adds Helen.

The sheer volume of activities the pupils take part in is impressive and Helen sets no limits on their opportunities: "I say they can do anything, and a lot of them can."

Finding employment openings for the pupils is difficult, but work experience has helped some find permanent posts.

There are 100 pupils at Drummond School with wide-ranging abilities. They pursue Access courses and some attend a local secondary, where there are lab facilities, to study physics, chemistry and biology.

The school offers 71 different Access courses and links with Inverness College to allow senior pupils to attend courses two or three days a week. Others visit local employment providers and a minority go into full-time employment.

"We have some really good links with local employers who take pupils for work experience, but they don't then necessarily take them into full-time employment," says Linda Schubert.

"That's a big part of this leavers' programme. We employ someone another 10 hours a week out of the school's budget so they have someone to mentor pupils, so when they go on work experience they do have someone with them and we are unique in that respect," she says.

She paid tribute to Helen Bull's efforts. "We had nothing that really prepared our pupils for life after school. It's a completely innovative programme," she said.

"It was created just out of her own head really, but she was always thinking, 'how is this going to benefit the pupils?'"

Helen acknowledges her achievement with typical self-effacement: "Getting employee of the year - I couldn't believe it - why me? I was amazed."

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