An international report on career guidance has picked Ferguslie Park, Paisley as a model for improving young people's job prospects. Tariq Tahir reports on how it works.
Driving into Ferguslie Park in Paisley four years ago, it was difficult to see any hope of regenerating this and other run-down estates or even knowing where to start.
But hope there now is, and it has come in the form of a new community centre, a house-building programme, and an initiative to make education one of the community's top priorities.
The Ferguslie Park Partnership, originally funded by the Scottish Office's Urban Aid programme, and boosted a fortnight ago with additional funds from its Programme for Partnership, was the only urban regeneration programme to appoint an education officer. Results so far point to its remarkable success: standard grade awards improved by 63.8 per cent in the four years to 1995 and unemployment fell from 44 per cent in 1988 to 19 per cent in 1995.
The main tool that it uses is the Home School Employment Partnership which has just been commended as an innovative example of good practice in an international report on career guidance (Mapping The Future by the Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development). set up in 1991 to forge links between schools, families and employers, and above all to involve parents in the education of their children, the partnership focuses on three secondary schools, Merksworth, Castlehead and St Mirin's and their feeder primaries that serve a community in which 84 per cent of adults have no educational qualifications.
It uses the key transitional points in a pupil's school life - from nursery to primary, from primary to secondary, from secondary 2 to standard grade courses and from school to work or further education - as the focus for raising expectations and breaking down the barriers between the community and the education system.
The partnership begins when a letter is sent to the parent of a child entering Primary 1, arranging a home visit by a teacher and a Home School Employment worker to talk about the school. Parents from all primary schools are then invited to the community centre to participate in workshops on learning, where they are helped to understand some of the difficulties faced by their children and are taken through how to read with them.
It is hoped that parents can acquire the confidence to help their children and not to feel that any educational shortcomings of their own are barriers to becoming involved with their children's education.
This use of home visiting is a vital component of the programme's success. The relatively informal environment contrasts sharply with the traditional summons in times of crisis or the sometimes impersonal parents' night.
Ann Houston, principal project officer with the Home School Employment Partnership, says: "Parents want to get involved in their children's education but they don't know how. It's important that we sustain the paired reading by having home visits to keep encouraging them."
During the transition between primary and secondary school, attention is more closely focused on helping pupils, although every parent is still visited at home by a S1 guidance teacher. Events are organised at the community centre where their fears can be addressed in the informal style that is characteristic of the whole programme. Pupils write down what they want to talk about and pin them to a "wailing wall" or go into a video box to record them. S 1 pupils also come to talk to them and they spend some time familiarising themselves with the secondary school.
When pupils enter secondary school, the Home School Employment Partnership starts to deal with more problematic issues in a pupil's development. Many might have low expectations of what they can achieve, or have problems at home. As its name suggests, the project has sought to use a partnership approach to discuss problems arising from home visits. "Quality circles", comprising parents, school staff and Home School Employment workers, tackle low expectations through a programme of supported study in schools that gives pupils an environment where they can work undistracted and with teachers at hand. This approach also resulted in the Project for Able Student Support (PASS) scheme to guide pupils through exams in S 4, 5 and 6.
"We get the parents and pupils to sign an agreement to make time for studying," says Ann Houston. "A lot of the pupils have domestic responsibilities or milk rounds. It's trying to involve everybody in committing support."
The partnership also seeks to tackle the problems of discipline in a way that avoids confrontations. By providing information about the school's discipline policy, parents can be made aware of why a pupil is receiving a particular punishment and, with luck, neutralise any sense of injustice that might stem from it.
As Christine Jess, education officer with the Ferguslie Park Partnership explains, help is given to vulnerable pupils, but that's not the sole aim of the Home School Employment Partnership. "We make a deliberate policy of not concentrating on problem children. The same attention is given to all pupils in the home visits," she says.
Ultimately the programme's aim is to see pupils enter employment or further education. While PASS helps those with clear academic goals, others who are underachieving or are more vocationally orientated also receive help. Work experience with local employers including Royal Mail and Scottish Power allows pupils to build their confidence and gain an understanding of what is required of them when they enter the world of work.
Home School Employment also monitors the progress of school leavers to ensure that they either stay on training programmes or change to one that is more appropriate. Through consulting employers, issues which arise, such as punctuality, can be addressed by the home visiting that continues into the first year after leaving school.
In general the Home School Employment Partnership is seen as providing, in the words of a Strathclyde University report, "a vital network of support". The consensus is that it is involving parents in activities that are taken for granted elsewhere in society. Indeed, a survey in the same report showed that of parents with children of primary school age, 76 per cent found the partnership helpful, with the figure rising to 80 per cent for S 1 - 3.
Existing in a culture that has long rejected education, these figures represent a turnaround in attitudes, and while there is still 20 per cent unemployment in Ferguslie Park, a generation of young people is being reclaimed for education.
Mapping the Future: Young People and Career Guidance by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is available from HMSO bookshops Whose Education is it Anyway?, a three-day European parents' conference, including parents from Ferguslie Park, runs from this Saturday to Monday at the Swallow Hotel, Bellahouston, Glasgow. Enquiries to the Scottish Community Education Council, tel: 0131 313 2488
Best thing to happen
As a single father of six school-age children, Tony Donnelly has perhaps got more reasons than most for becoming involved in the Home School Employment Partnership. His small flat in the heart of Ferguslie Park is hardly the ideal environment for learning and he is due to be re-housed when it is pulled down.
His priority is to get the best education possible for his children and since the start of the Home School Employment Partnership he has been able to participate in their development. His eldest son, 17-year-old Anthony, is on the PASS scheme for able pupils and is at one of the key transitional stages in his life that the partnership was designed to help.
"To me it's been the best thing that could have happened to my kids and I would like to stress that it was a choice that they made themselves - getting involved in the different schemes," says Mr Donnelly. "Anthony used to be inward, but he has really gained in confidence since he's been on the programme."
Mr Donnelly is enthusiastic about the new openness of Merksworth High School and his participation in curriculum workshops and initiatives to tackle bullying. "You used to get the cold shoulder from schools and you were only in there when something was wrong. When I attend the meetings I get to speak my mind and that saves you blowing your top. I know that kids aren't angels but you've got to talk to them and get them to help other kids, not pick on them."
Many of the pitfalls of parenthood that he encounters are familiar ones. Anthony has become stage struck and is thinking about a career in acting - ambitions which Tony Donnelly is keen to nip in the bud. The fact that these issues are even up for discussion, is a testament to the role that the Home School Employment Partnership has played in motivating people to consider any possibility seriously.
Breaking cycle of mistrust
Merksworth High School is one of the three secondary schools that serve Ferguslie Park.
Headteacher Alasdair Macdonald explains the job the school has in attempting to involve local parents in the education of their children.
"Since they have had a negative experience of school themselves, they could not see the benefits of taking exams. Some of them might be suspicious of schools. We got them to come in and see that teachers are different," he says. "Also poverty is a problem. Many people can't afford to heat rooms and there's the distraction of other people being around. The parents that have not sat exams do not appreciate what their kids are going through."
The Home School Employment Partnership staff based in Merksworth High organise a programme of supported study, whereby pupils whose home environment is not conducive to learning can do their homework under supervised conditions.
"Our own teachers are effectively tutoring the pupils. And it's about a private space where they can study," says Mr Macdonald.
Advances have also been made in breaking the cycle of mistrust that existed between parents and the school.
"Sadly a lot of my time is taken up with discipline. With the information parents get through the Home School Employment Partnership, they can ask questions in a measured way because they know what the discipline policy is.
"Children can't play us off against the parents. Also parents can be assertive without being aggressive and they can say their piece and a counter-argument can be presented without their psyche collapsing." He feels that the partnership allows the Ferguslie Park parents the same opportunity to play the education system that middle class parents have had for years.