It's more than all right here

14th March 2008 at 00:00
Teenagers do not tend to enthuse about school or the subjects they study; often the best that can be hoped for is a grudging "'s all right".

However, at Castlebrae Community High, where four vocational courses were officially launched earlier this month, S3 pupil Lewis Blackley bucks that trend. Mechanics isn't just all right; he loves it, the 14-year-old says.

The new courses - automotive, construction, childcare and hairdressing - are being taught with Edinburgh's Telford College as part of the 2020 Vision project funded by Sir Tom Hunter and the Scottish Government.

The project, which has invested pound;1.5 million over three years to develop vocational courses at Castlebrae High, Wester Hailes Education Centre and Craigroyston Community High, all in Edinburgh, aims to halve the number of young people going straight into a cycle of unemployment.

The courses at Castlebrae High started in August. Neil Campbell, principal teacher of craft, design and technology, teaches the automotive course. So far Lewis and his classmates have learnt how to valet a car and are in the process of stripping back engines to their component parts. "We're learning how the engine works," Lewis says.

The aspect of the course that he is most enthusiastic about is the race car the students are building from scratch, using parts from old cars donated to them.

"When we finish, we get to drive it," Lewis says. "When it first arrived, it was just the frame. We've put in the engine, front shock absorbers, brakes, gears and we've already got it to start, which isn't bad."

The course runs four periods a week and compares favourably to the more traditional subjects, Lewis says. He likes the practical side - not just sitting in class writing.

He also likes being on site, as valuable engine-tinkering time is not wasted travelling to a college.

"When I was in primary and thought about coming to Castlebrae, I never dreamt of working with so much dangerous stuff," he says. "But Mr Campbell takes care of us and shows us what to do. And we've got all the right gear - overalls and steel toe-capped boots."

Lewis's classmate Mark Nicol chips in that he likes the class because "you don't have to sit still".

And Liam Philp, who is also in S3 and taking mechanics and construction crafts, likes working with his hands and feels the courses will set him up for a job.

So far, in construction, he has done a bit of plumbing, some joinery, with painting and decorating, and has bricklaying ahead.

A taste of what it is like to be a mechanic appears to have saved Lewis from making a potentially catastrophic career move. In spite of "not liking cooking and that", he says he had ambitions to be a chef.

Mr Campbell says: "One or two of the boys doing this are at the lower end of the ability scale, but not at this subject. For some kids here, this will be the first time they have ever been the best in class."

Doubtless this is the kind of change in fortune Sir Tom Hunter had in mind when he invested his cash. The Hunter Foundation has also been pleased to see "enlightened employers" getting involved in the project: automotive is supported by Ford; construction crafts by Sharkeys and PARCEDI; childcare by Castlebrae Family Centre and the East Neighbourhood Early Years Team, and hairdressing by Charlie Miller. This, the school argues, will guarantee sustainability when the three-year funding is up.

Other schools will also be able to use the facilities. Already Portobello High is tapping into hairdressing.

Hairdressing is housed in converted craft, design and technology and science classrooms, separated by a door from the mechanics area. This is a different, more pristine world, where grubby, oil-covered fingers would not be welcome.

There is a modern reception desk, black leather chairs in the waiting area, sleek black sinks and stylish workstations where clients are transformed.

Today, pupils from Portobello High are working on fake clients - dummies' heads with real hair. Nicola Hogg, 15, is giving hers lavender and pink streaks. "I've wanted to do this since I was small, so when I heard we could do it here, I applied straight away," she says.

Castlebrae High pupil Samantha Tiffney, 16, is not studying hairdressing but she attends the after-school club for S3 and 4 pupils - there is also a club for S1 and 2 - to learn some of the skills.

"I've just always liked doing people's hair," she says.

Samantha plans to leave school at the end of S4 and get a job in a salon. Thanks to the school's new facilities, she has a better idea of what to expect and has improved her people skills.

"I was really shy but having to speak to strangers has really improved my confidence," she says.

This is why vocational courses are relevant for everybody, including academic pupils, argues Pauline Sharp, the depute headteacher.

"The message we are determined to get over is that Skills for Work courses are about employability, not necessarily tying someone into a particular trade. They learn things like time management, how to work under pressure and communication skills."

The school was "quietly surprised" by the number of academic pupils applying for vocational subjects, but it would like to encourage more. "This is one subject out of seven," says Ms Sharp.

Next year the school hopes to introduce rural skills and environmental studies courses, as well as increasing the numbers able to take existing vocational courses.

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