Now we're really cooking
A TALL chef stands imposingly at one end of a gleaming kitchen, directing a platoon of white-suited figures as they cook fresh food, arrange it artistically on plates and carry them through swing-doors to the hushed and classy ambience of the Snapdragon Restaurant.
"Come on, step it up a gear," the commander calls, and his small army starts to hustle. It could easily be a scene from a celebrity chef television show.
But there are big differences. This is not the metropolis. It is Bellshill, North Lanarkshire. Jim Mullen, of Motherwell College, carries authority and the aspiring chefs jump to his command without him shouting or swearing.
And the Snapdragon is not some fashionable west end restaurant. It is the centrepiece of the junior hospitality academy at Cardinal Newman High.
There is a resemblance that goes deeper than appearance. "This is about the best meal I've ever tasted," says John Scott, of Scottish Enterprise, as he tucks into a lunch of smoked salmon, poached loin of lamb and sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce.
His enthusiasm is shared by other local luminaries at a business partnership lunch organised by the school's headteacher, Isabelle Boyd. "We like to get local business into school because the contacts really benefit our pupils," she says. "Several of the companies today, for instance, are providing work experience places."
Intermediate 2 professional cookery would normally be beyond the resources and expertise of even the best-equipped home economics department. But as one of the first Schools of Ambition, Cardinal Newman High set out two years ago to become an enterprise academy, with the aim of equipping pupils with "the skills, attitudes and expectations of life beyond school".
Progress in realising the school's ambitions gained national recognition last month, when it triumphed over some of Scotland's top hotels to win the Innovation in Training award at the Catering in Scotland Excellence Awards.
Snapdragon had already been named college restaurant of the year by Restaurant magazine.
A key factor in the quality of the food and the success of the course, says Mrs Boyd, has been the school's partnership with Motherwell College, whose lecturers come in once a week. She contrasts the approach with the alternative, when school pupils are sent to colleges for vocational lessons.
"We've been involved from before the course started this session," says Gordon Leitch, a lecturer. "We designed this kitchen, which is beyond anything you would find in a school. It's a modern professional kitchen, like they have in first-class restaurants."
That link with industry standards and quality, which the school gains through its partnership with the college, is priceless, says Mrs Boyd. "We need the lecturers to ensure what the kids are getting has currency and relevance," she says.
"It's very much the North Lanarkshire model of a 21st century comprehensive, in which a school enhances one aspect to raise achievement across the board. We (the authority) already had three sports comprehensives and a music comprehensive. Cardinal Newman High is now an enterprise comprehensive.
"It is all about raising kids' confidence and expectations and providing them with skills and attitudes for life."
The school-college partnership also delivers a course in con-struction and from next session will offer an SVQ in horticulture too. What is common to all these vocational courses, and others they may offer in future, is the model, says Mrs Boyd, the award-bearing courses and the in-school provision. But the vision goes further.
"In the longer term, we plan to develop our own capacity so that our teachers will play a large part in delivering the courses," she says.
"As a School of Ambition, we have to aim for that sustainability beyond the three years' funding. So we have arranged the timetable to allow our teachers to work alongside the college lecturers. That means they can identify what parts they can teach and where their professional development needs lie.
"At some point in the future - by the year after next, in fact - we want our teachers to be delivering large chunks of the courses, with lecturers coming in for blocks of specialist teaching and to maintain that vital contact with industry standards."
The well-fed guests are leaving Snapdragon and the young workers are sitting down with their lecturers to discuss the lessons learnt over a bite of first-class food.
This is one of the most appealing aspects of the course, says Gillian Brownlie, in S3. "You get to try food that people our age would never get a chance to eat.
"The way the food is cooked is different to what I'm used to. So is how the dishes are put together and presented.
"Once we've finished cooking, we take a photograph of the food for our portfolio. Then we eat it."
The sweets are what stand out for Jordan Dooey, also in S3. "We make our ice-cream and we've done sorbets, cheesecake, apricot tart, creme brulee... "When you go out for a meal now, you appreciate it more. You know the hard work and time it has taken to cook."
Both pupils are enjoying the course enormously, although neither has yet settled on a career.
"When we're cooking just for ourselves, it's relaxed and friendly. But when we have guests, like today, there's more pressure," says Gillian. "It's much more fun than other lessons, when you're always writing."
The whole feel of the course is different to other lessons, agrees Jordan.
"It doesn't seem like you're in school. That's because of the environment and the way the lecturers talk to you. They treat you like an adult. Even when there's pressure it's good, because it gets the best out of you. You don't notice that you're learning."