This is the house that Scott built with Willie, Shauni, Chloe

30th June 2006 at 01:00
A community partnership gives a new route to achievement for pupils at risk of disaffection. Jean McLeish finds out more

hloe's tooth diamond is a twinkling distraction amid the building site paraphernalia of paint, ladders and hard hats, as she and her S4 classmates outline their career plans.

They are standing in front of the two-roomed house they have built at Buckie Community High, working through winter snow and gales which blew a nearby classroom roof off. It is no grand design, just a simple timber-clad affair, 10m x 3m, that will be used as music practice rooms, but for everyone involved it has been an extraordinary journey.

"I'd like to do joinery when I leave school. I like working with wood and nails and hammers," says the 16-year-old, talkative at the prospect of extending her escape from computer studies.

"The cold wasn't so bad. We got a cup of tea afterwards."

Chloe Ross is one of nine girls and 11 boys who worked on the building. At first, the girls were apprehensive about working outside and attracting unwanted attention, but no one bothered them.

Today, as some of the group put finishing touches to the rooms, they reflect on a year that may well have changed their lives.

Buckie used to be one of Scotland's best-known fishing communities with a busy harbour on the Moray Firth, home to generations of families who earned their living from the sea. That has all changed and at Buckie High, fishing is more a history lesson than a job prospect. Those who still go to sea head for distant waters and land their catch elsewhere: one teacher's father took his boat to Namibia and flies there to fish.

Skill shortages in other industries bring different job opportunities. The new building in the school's car park is the result of an unusual and mutually beneficial partnership between Buckie High and a local construction company, Springfield Properties.

The teenagers began with construction site visits to get an overview of the business. Then Springfield Properties provided sections of the building in ready cut packs, which the pupils assembled, erected and clad, with help from the firm's tradesmen and their technical teachers.

The group had opted out of the conventional curriculum choice structure when they started S3. David Strachan, a depute headteacher, says the idea was to give them an alternative to the usual academic path that would hopefully prove more productive for them and boost their confidence. The pupils would work on Access 2, Access 3 or Intermediate 1 units, as well as Standard grades, to compile a Scottish Group Award.

"It was felt that for some pupils the Scottish Group Award route would provide a more rewarding experience of school and better preparation for further education, training or employment," he says.

The school also enhanced the curriculum with community or extended work experience, college vocational courses and ventures with the education charity Skill Force, run by former members of the armed forces.

Then, in May last year, the school was approached by Springfield Properties, which wanted to strengthen its community links and boost local recruitment opportunities. A shortage of skilled staff has already led it to bring 30-40 workers from Poland.

"We wanted people to know we're a good company to work for and to raise the profile of the construction industry in the hope that they would be attracted to come and work in it," explains Jane Innes, the marketing manager.

If the reaction of the novice builders is anything to go by, it appears the company now has young talent waiting in the wings.

Scott Fielding, 15, has applied for an apprenticeship with the company and meanwhile will stay on at school for fifth year.

"I've enjoyed the joinery best, putting all the panels in at the start,"

says Scott, who is painting the ceiling. "It's been good. There's more stuff to do and you're nae aye sitting in the class.

"I'll go into joinery or bricklaying. I am going into the fifth year but as soon as I get a job, I'm hoping to go," he says, raining a fine mist of white emulsion on to his clothes, hair and skin.

Classmate Callum Crowe plans a career as a joiner, while Chloe and her friend Shauni McIntosh, who also has a special interest in woodwork, are taking technical subjects in S5 and thinking about becoming joiners when they leave.

"It's because of this we're doing it," says Chloe, nodding towards the house.

"I've been helping my dad with our new house. I've done the doors and the bits that go round the doors," she adds.

Another of the team, Timothy Mair, has helped his father to build an extension to their house. "That went well.

"I've worked on the inside of this building, using the big saw. I'm interested in maybe bricklaying or something," he says.

Catherine Taylor, 15, was not an immediate convert to hard hat culture. "At first I wasn't that interested in this, but it's grown on me," she admits.

"My granddad was extending the shed and I was telling hime what to do - and he did listen to me," she adds emphatically.

Mr Strachan is a champion of the collaboration, glad to see young people thrive instead of impatient to escape school and disaffected. He recognises the pleasant irony that, although the programme was set up to help pupils fare better as school leavers, more than expected from the group have decided to stay on for the fifth year.

"Nine are staying on; we might have expected about six.

"We can't prove it but they've probably had a better experience of school than they might otherwise have, had they gone through the conventional curriculum."

The building project has also been good for the technical teachers, some of whom started their working lives on building sites. They have enjoyed getting back to their roots, supervising the work alongside Springfield Properties, working to deadlines and encouraging the pupils as they worked outside in the winter when they would rather be warm inside.

John Steel, the principal teacher of technical subjects, was joint project manager. "We came outside to work in January. It was freezing and some days we had to cancel because the weather was atrocious," he says, joining the huddle of pupils now enjoying the sunshine. "But they did work in bad weather, some of them better than others. For some, it didn't matter what the weather was."

Ms Innes says colleagues at Springfield Properties have thoroughly enjoyed the partnership. Two workers are former Buckie High pupils and played key roles in the school building, one undertaking the project management.

"A lot of our staff have been involved and everyone's enjoyed it. That really helps their job satisfaction," she says. "It's also been a chance for staff to improve their communication skills.

"I'd really recommend it for any company to get involved in a project like this," adds Ms Innes, who is looking forward to working with the school again next year.

Willie Miller, 16, has just left school to join his father's business, which is involved in the building industry, but he has been helping to finish the building for the opening. This must be the stuff of teachers' dreams.

There is to be a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of Springfield House, as the new building is called, and Catherine and her friend Rachael Grant have been organising the catering - by the school dinner ladies - and invitations, with guidance from Ms Innes.

"We've worked better as a team on this," says Rachael. "Before, we argued when we were working together.

"I'm interested in the administrative side. Jane's taught us a lot."

The invitations are in the shape of a house and printed with the school's motto: "Remis Velisque". It is fitting for a historic sea-faring community, but with resonance also for the novice builders. "By oar and by sail,"

reveals Delia Thornton, a depute headteacher and Latin scholar, "and that means using every means you can to get on and get moving."

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