WHEN SARAH Anderson's classmates at Liberton High were dragging themselves out of bed on the first day of term this year, facing a day of maths, English or whatever, she was up and about choosing what to wear, applying her make-up, and possibly the most important, fixing her hair.
For January 6 was the 15-year-old's first day of employment at Medusa Hair Salon, a job she had secured thanks to an extended work placement during the winter term. "I hated school," says Sarah, sitting on the sofa in Medusa's reception, surrounded by pictures of perfect hair. She flicks her sharply cut fringe from her face. "It was time to leave. Everyone seemed so immature. I had been desperate to leave since third year but, because of when my birthday fell, I had to wait until S5 before I could go."
Iain Hutchison, her guidance teacher, suggested an extended work placement, where students who are disengaged from learning can gain work experience without leaving school.
Many schools are embracing it as a way of reducing the risk of some students falling into the Neet group (not in education, employment or training) after they leave school. Sarah remained on the school roll, but found unpaid work in an area she was considering as a possible career.
"She is a clever girl and had achieved seven Standard grades at Credit and General level, but she had no intention of staying on at school beyond Christmas," Mr Hutchison says. "It seemed like a good idea for her to do a work placement for as long as possible to get a taste of what working was like. But it had to be somewhere that would offer some sort of training experience, and her parents had to agree."
As Sarah had wanted to be a hairdresser since she was five, it was easy.
The school supported her, but she had to find her placement herself. In October she began trawling local salons.
Suddenly, instead of turning up to school, Sarah had to turn up at the salon every day on time and ready to work. It lasted two weeks before she left, disillusioned not with hairdressing, but with the salon. But before she left she had set up a second placement at Medusa, an award-winning chain of stylish, trendy salons close to the university. "I knew if I didn't get another one I'd have to go back to school, and I couldn't bear that," she says.
Like many large businesses, Medusa has problems finding recruits. "From our point of view, it works well. It gives them a chance to see if it is what they want," says Gillian Watt, co-owner.
She believes the success of an extended placement comes from building a good relationship with the school, getting the parents involved, and ensuring the bureaucracy is followed carefully from risk assessments to mutual contracts.
"The training is informal but, even if the pupil decides hairdressing is not for them, six weeks or so of working here helps develop transferable skills that are more difficult to develop in school. They learn how to deal with the public, to take on responsibilities and to make sure they get to work on time and be presentable."
Sarah is convinced hairdressing is for her, and is hopeful that her formal training will begin shortly after her 16th birthday. Already she is manifesting many of the skills mentioned, from communicating with strangers to turning up every day, presentable and enthusiastic to learn.