Hive gives youngsters new buzz

5th February 2010 at 00:00
For those unsuited to school but not ready for vocational courses, Kilmarnock College's centre offers a chance to re-engage

It's called The Hive. But Kilmarnock College's centre for students who need more "hope, inspiration and vision in their education" is more relaxed than a honey bee's home.

There are some similarities, though. There's a lot of work going on, for a start, much of it for the benefit of others. "I wanted to do catering when I came to the college," says Nikolas Pirrie, 20. "I changed my mind after I joined the course. Now I want to go for HNC social care. I'd like to be able to help people like me - the way I've been helped by coming here."

What "people like me" means emerges when he and his colleagues are asked about their experience of school, which ranged from "I hated it" to "They hated me".

But while pupils unsuited to secondary often re-engage at college, The Hive students are initially not quite ready for that. "I came to the college to do childcare," says Ashley Kane, 17. "It was like school, maybe because I'd just turned 16. So I went to the Prince's Trust. They got us working in groups and took us away. We had to take decisions. That gave me confidence. After that, I started on PEZ. I'm not sure what I'll do when I leave. I don't want to. It's like a big family here."

PEZ, the personal empowerment zone, is a six-month course aimed at providing the skills students need on vocational courses or employment, explains Carol Nisbet, head of widening access and participation. "We created it two years ago, when we got European funding to develop innovative courses for disengaged groups. It proved so popular that, this year, we've started a PEZ Plus for those who are still not quite ready. Sometimes kids need a year or two of support."

In The Hive - a pastel-painted building with small rooms, a social area, achievement photographs on walls, and the feel of a friendly youth club - that support is provided by four learner engagement officers, funded initially with More Choices, More Chances money.

But such was their success that the college has now given them permanent contracts, says college principal Heather Dunk. "We looked at how to make it sustainable, rather than using biscuit-tin money," she says. "That's a reflection of the value we place on these individuals - and on the students they support."

Asked what distinguishes The Hive's learner engagement officers from mainstream college lecturers, students offer suggestions: "They've got experience of being a normal person themselves"; "They treat you like a person, not a stupid wean."

Kieran Guy, 18, was initially unimpressed. "I've heard it before from college lecturers: `It's not school - we'll treat you with respect.' Then you get a week into the course and they treat you like school-weans. I wasn't going to come to PEZ, because I was so scunnered I didn't get the course I wanted. I sat and listened and heard the same things I'd heard before. But the big difference was they actually did it. They kept on treating you with respect."

While students in The Hive talk with smiles about people, course content is also important, says Ms Nisbet. "Besides PEZ, which builds core skills and confidence, we run a course for winter school-leavers and a one-week leadership academy for 13 to 16-year-olds from East Ayrshire secondaries."

This week's leadership academy has just reached a high point in the hall, where youngsters are performing a musical they've put together, with the help of drama and music lecturers, and learner engagement officer Caroline McCulloch.

"They're here for a week, but we do a lot," she says. "The first day they say, "I'll no be singing and dancing and abseiling.' We do team-building and form groups, then they go rock-climbing, canoeing, skiing. They work on the musical, perform it and take away a DVD of it all."

The hardest part was the caving, says Demi Anderson from Kilmarnock Academy. "You were squeezing through tight spaces like that," she says, holding her hands implausibly close together. "It was pitch dark and you had to talk and help each other. You were so scared but you still did it."

The best part was the singing and dancing, says her mate Dionne Rowlands. "But the caving was good as well - once you'd done it. I never thought we could do all the things we've done this week."

Creating confidence is as much about pushing boundaries as teaching core skills. "We were hill-walking near Dalry yesterday," says Ms McCulloch. "It was windy, ice cold, and the mist was down. Then they did the caving. It was a challenging day. At check-in this morning, they said they went home and slept."

Check-in is a key feature of Hive courses, says Ms Nisbet. "First thing, we hear what each of them has been doing at home and on the course, and how they're feeling. It's about getting to know them better, matching activities to the individual."

So what happens when students leave The Hive? "They've had one positive experience of education," says Ms Nisbet. "They've gained confidence. It used to be easy for them to walk away. Now they don't want to. Also, we are still here. They can drop in and talk to us whenever they want - and many do."

Douglas Blane,

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