'Old people's faces light up when they see the young ones coming'

14th November 2008 at 00:00
Visiting war veterans at Erskine, chatting to residents at a hospice and 'rhody bashing' are just some of the activities young volunteers at Johnstone High are involved in as part of their third and fourth-year curriculum. Douglas Blane reports

Through the windows of the brightly painted day-room at St Vincent's Hospice, patients and visitors can look out on gently sloping lawns. But the well-tended rock-gardens of cypress, juniper and Japanese maple, which hug the whitewashed stone of the redeveloped farmhouse, are largely out of sight.

So Cathie Fox had an idea to bring life and colour to the view. "I bought about 150 bulbs, mostly daffodil which is my favourite flower, and the youngsters from the school planted them all over the grass. I like to think of them coming up every Spring ... when most of us are gone."

Voluntary work at the small hospice on the outskirts of Howood, and at other locations around the town of Johnstone, has become an integral part of the third and fourth-year curriculum at Johnstone High.

Wednesday afternoon citizenship had its origins in a mix of A Curriculum for Excellence and the social concerns of staff at the school, says Alasdair Macdonald, the headteacher. "It is good for the community and it's good for the children," he says." One boy last year sticks in my mind. He had difficulty relating to others. But when he was out on the activities, he loved it. Suddenly, he was part of the group and the other kids began to see him in a different light."

The satisfaction levels of pupils with the project, as reflected in their comments and the diaries they are asked to keep each week, rose as the project progressed, he says. "They realised they were getting accepted by the adults they were coming in contact with. At the same time, we were getting phone calls saying, 'These kids are great.'"

"Community feedback has been very positive - with people saying that youngsters get a bad press and it's nice to see what they're really like, and to be able to talk to them," says depute head Keyren McDiarmid.

"Citizenship and enterprise, and the overlap, are part of my remit, and in thinking about A Curriculum for Excellence we realised we could do more as a whole school. Our senior pupils are very involved in the community and with younger pupils, through activities like paired reading and befriending. But we wanted to offer more opportunities to those younger pupils."

Amy Kenmuir, in fourth year, was one of the first group who went into the community. Her choice was Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park and an activity popularly known as "rhody bashing", she says. "Rhododendrons might look nice but they take over the woodland. So we got into wellies and stuff and we would use either a saw or loppers to cut them down and put them on a fire.

"You'd have to drag the branches along, cut them up, then go back and do it again. There was never a stop really. It was hard work but I'm quite an outdoors person. The rain didn't stop us but we did get muddy. And some of us fell down a lot."

An appealing aspect of the community work - which seemed to some exactly the opposite at first - was that pupils do not work in friendship groups. "You would normally stick with your own group of friends at school and never get to know other people in your year," says Amy. "But this split us up. You had to get to know people - and some of us are good friends since."

It's a view expressed often in the volunteers' diaries, says Christine Burrows, principal teacher of pastoral care. "They enjoy working outside the school and in teams. The emphasis seems to be on meeting and making friends."

There is an element of design in these mixed groupings - of putting children together who will help support each other, says Ms McDiarmid. "By third year, they are working in most subjects in ability groups. But with citizenship, everyone starts from nothing. Nobody knows what to do at first. They suddenly discover 'I'm good at this' or 'I can lead a group'. The principle is that every child can achieve and we are giving them the chance to recognise, talk about and celebrate them."

But in young people's minds, the barriers to achievement can sometimes seem too high. "There was one boy who went to Erskine hospital for ex-servicemen and women. He was really worried about it and if he could have found some way to get out of it he would have."

Indeed, the first couple of sessions with the veterans were a struggle, Jamie Reid admits. "I was shy and nervous. They put us in the dementia ward. We would talk about the weather; they would ask us about school; we would ask what they'd been doing today. We would get them tea and talk with their families when they came in.

"The staff there would suggest things for us to talk about. One man told us how he loved getting out of the house when he was young, and going to the park to play football. But he couldn't remember things that had happened more recently.

"When they told us that kind of thing - things that seemed to me to be important to them - I tried to remember them, so I could help them to remember next time I saw them. I put Erskine down again this year as one of my choices. I enjoyed hearing their stories. I'm more confident now talking to older people."

At St Vincent's Hospice, as the sun sinks, the young gardeners are tidying up, wheelbarrowing cut branches to the compost heap. Inside, Lauren Thompson is making an entry in her diary before heading home: "I didn't know what to expect. I didn't realise people would be so ill. We work in the day centre: making tea, talking to people, doing things with them. We were making a collage today for Christmas. I like doing this kind of thing. It gives you a taste of what real people do."

The Johnstone High students are younger than usual for voluntary work, but St Vincent's was happy to take them, says volunteer co-ordinator Christine Haddock. "It's good for them to see that this is not a sad place. It's not doom and gloom. They work with people in our day centre who are still mobile and living at home but come here for companionship, friendly faces and social activities. They enjoy having young people here and chatting with them. The majority of our volunteers are about retirement age, so it is nice to get the younger ones coming in."

At the front door, volunteer receptionist Doreen Black is handing out schoolbags from behind the desk to departing pupils. "Young and old people relate well to each other," she says. "They have a lot in common - and the young ones have a wee soft spot for somebody who is not well. Old people's faces light up when they see the young ones coming in."



Good citizenship takes more than good intentions. Planning, organisation and co-operation from a range of people are also necessary.

Timetabling can be tricky and was achieved at Johnstone High by moving from eight to seven Standard grades. This released one period for additional PE - to deliver the then statutory two hours - and two periods for non-certificated Curriculum for Excellence activities.

Four sets were arranged - citizenship, enterprise, healthy eating and ICT - which the year-group experienced in rotation. This meant that 60 pupils, for whom places had to be found in the community, were participating in citizenship at any one time.

Parents were consulted and the school also worked through Student Volunteering Scotland to find placements. Besides the hospice, the hospital and the country park, these include drop-in cafes, a special school, a bird sanctuary, the cemetery and several local primaries.

"If you want responsible citizens and confident individuals you have to give the kids the opportunity to be responsible and become confident," says Mr Macdonald. "Young people who are expected to perform well and given a chance to do so almost invariably live up to expectations."

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