Oil, Mohican and an engine for learning

6th May 2011 at 01:00
How do you motivate pupils who are disengaged in school? Kit them out in overalls and get them to work on your racing bike

With his Mohican haircut and racing motorbike, Ian Pert looks more rebel than role model. But his values are more old school: "I set boundaries and if they cross the boundary, they soon know about it. There's no grey area - `Was I? Wasn't I?' - they know," he says firmly.

Mr Pert is a freelance outdoor instructor and a member of the Tayside Mountain Rescue Team. He raced motorbikes for 10 years in his twenties and now has his helmet back on in his forties to work with young people.

In partnership with Tayside Police, he is training 40 youngsters from four Angus schools as members of the Hedzup Racing pit crew. Their goal is to form a motorcycle road racing team to compete in a Scottish Championship event - at weekends the teenagers take turns to crew for him when he races at East Fortune, near Edinburgh.

For one session a week at their school, the boys work on the bikes, preparing them to stay the course at speeds of over 120 miles an hour.

This is the third racing season for 15-year-old Brian Watt, a fourth-year Arbroath Academy pupil now mentoring third-year pupils on the programme.

"Before I started coming to this project, I used to be always in trouble," says Brian. "My carers had to come to school every second day to pick me up to take me home to do work at home. So it's actually improved my behaviour.

"This is the first year I have not been excluded from school or sent home. It's something that showed me that you can't get on in life mucking about. You have to do some work to get somewhere."

Race days are an adrenaline rush, when the boys have to be fast and accurate. "If he comes in and say he crashes, me and the rest of the team have to go in, fix the bike and get it ready to race again and get it back out there," says Brian.

This summer, three lucky teenagers from each school will pack their tools and overalls to back up Mr Pert when he races in the Manx Grand Prix on the Isle of Man. But if they're going to go, their work and behaviour at school will have to be up to scratch - they have to apply for a place and competition will be keen.

Mr Pert runs Hedzup at Arbroath Academy, Arbroath High, Forfar Academy and Carnoustie High. The scheme has been highlighted as good practice by HMIE on a recent visit to Forfar Academy, and schools further afield are showing interest.

"It's not about turning these kids into bike racers - far from it. It's the real life skills they are getting involved in," says Mr Pert, as the boys polish bikes behind him.

"I liken a race to going for a job interview. When I go into a race, if I think I'm going to be second I'll never be any better than second. It's the same with a job: if you go into a job thinking `I don't think I'll get this one' - you won't."

The project has funding from international drinks company Diageo and is marking the start of the season with a launch event for parents, pupils and supporters. Another two riders have signed up - well-known motorcycle racer Colin McDougall and Alan Cummings, who came out of racing retirement to join them.

Mr Pert had been mulling over this concept for some time before it started two years ago: "I was on the mountain one night waiting for the helicopter, on a rescue. I got talking to Ewan Stewart, the community police officer from Arbroath.

"He's into bikes and I told him I had this plan to build a race bike with a group of kids. He loved it and said: `why not?' "

Within months Ewan Stewart had assembled a budget and the two got the venture established with pupils from Arbroath Academy and Arbroath High.

Mr Stewart has now moved to another posting, but the police continue to support the scheme through officers like Constable Arlene Munro, a drug and alcohol prevention officer who attends Hedzup evening sessions in Forfar and helps source funding.

"It's been fantastic," she says, "because we have had kids on it who have been disenfranchised, they've had problems at home or at school. It's brought them together with other young people who have not had any problems whatsoever. It's made them work together; they have to communicate. It's about team building," says Constable Munro.

The hope is to launch evening sessions in more Angus towns and open up new possibilities for youngsters who might be at risk of offending. "They don't have to go down this road of going out drinking at night, causing anti-social behaviour, getting into trouble - there is something they can do," she says.

The headteacher at Arbroath Academy, David Macdonald, has watched his pupils on this alternative curriculum at the East Fortune circuit: "It's children who are finding it difficult to access our mainstream education and it's to give them a learning environment that is different from the classroom," he says.

"Ian has very high standards and he has to have when he's going to be doing over 100 miles an hour on the motorbike.

"He has very high expectations for them and the whole basis is that they don't continue to go if they don't meet his standards, and those standards are agreed with us."

Out in the garage in Arbroath Academy grounds, the boys who maintain the bikes acknowledge that these skills give them new purpose and direction. They will also allow them to pursue a Youth Achievement Award through the Asdan programme.

Fifteen-year-old Rando Raud came to Scotland from Estonia five years ago and is discovering a new passion and work ethic at Arbroath Academy.

"I really love it and I want to keep doing it when I leave school - maybe try racing. It's helped me a lot since I first started this project - I wasn't being that good, but I've been a lot more focused," says Rando, who mentors younger boys in the team.

But not all participants are interested in high-speed thrills.

"It's a bit intense-looking," says 15-year-old James Whyte at Forfar Academy, who admits he will be happy with a moped when he's 16. "No, I would not like to be on the bike," says Steven Menmuir, also 15, as he fixes a bracket to stabilise a bike seat.

One of the third years, Conor Cosgrove-Turner, 14, attends evening sessions in Forfar as well as at school. "You're getting your hands mucky all the time - there's nothing boring about it. You're taking something away from this - learning how an engine works and how to put it together," he says.

For the moment, the pit crew is an all-male team. But Arbroath Academy's support-for-learning assistant, Cheryl Cowie, accompanies boys on race days and plans to sit her motorbike test.

Ms Cowie is interested in cars and bikes and has spent many happy hours under the bonnet of her old Astra. "I'm very keen," she says. "And if the boys are telling me what's broken and what's not, then I have some understanding."

Pupil care and support staff at Arbroath Academy recommend youngsters from S3 and S4 for Hedzup.

"I'm really pleased with how they're getting on," says Ms Cowie. "I think it's made a massive difference for these guys and it gives them an enthusiasm that can stay with them for the rest of their lives."

The team will race several bikes this season, including a Kawasaki GPX 600, a Honda CBR600 and two Yamaha FZR 1000s. Last year, they notched up several wins and three runner-up positions in championship events.

But their teachers at Arbroath Academy will also have a keen eye on their performance at school.

"As teachers we are expected to get all pupils five passes. They can't just opt out; they need to get passes," says depute head Kelly McIntosh.

"The kids aren't necessarily picked for it because they are not academically able. Some of them are very academically able, but they are just not engaging with school in the way they should be."

She is thrilled at the continuing success of this project, but aware that the youngsters must also be successful learners. She is keen that pupils don't see the project as a distraction from their schoolwork, saying at the end of it: "It's great, I'm a dead good leader and I'm dead good at team work and I've learnt about bikes and I've been to East Fortune - but I've only got three passes at Standard grade."

"We will have to watch out for that," she says.

Farming, cookery and football on the menu at Arbroath

At an 80-acre Angus nature reserve and farm, teenagers get a taste of working outdoors and gain qualifications in rural skills.

Arbroath Academy has a school partnership agreement with Murton Wildlife Trust near Forfar, which offers vocational training in the land-based industry.

"Students do a variety of Scottish Qualifications Authority work because we are an SQA centre. So they learn rural skills and animal husbandry and animal handling and education in hatchery, because we have a bird-breeding programme as well," says Elley Petrie, development officer with the trust.

The trust offers 14 to 19-year-olds the opportunity to do rural skills qualifications at Intermediate 1 and 2, or standalone units in estates skills, fence construction and landscaping.

It's one of a range of opportunities available to youngsters through Arbroath Academy's alternative curriculum, such as the cooking academy run by the local multi-agency resource team started this year or the Goals project run at a local football stadium with the CAFE (Community Alcohol Free Environment) project, "Street Games for All".

Arbroath Academy was one of the first schools to open pre-vocational courses to third and fourth-years in partnership with Angus College as part of the Skills for Work agenda around 2005.

The school has always had parts of the alternative curriculum targeted at pupils not suited to mainstream classes full-time. But vocational opportunities are now open to everyone for one of their choices, so they can do a vocational course instead of a Standard grade.

"In its broadest sense there is an alternative curriculum for everybody at Arbroath Academy," says depute headteacher Kelly McIntosh, "because everybody gets the chance now to do academic subjects when they're doing their option choice. And we offer vocational qualifications in school and in partnership with Angus College."

Original headline: Oil, dirt, a Mohican and a roaring engine for learning

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