Land-based industries are in urgent need of workers to keep them viable. A new scheme this year could see more pupils studying rural skills and opening up their horizons, Su Clark writes
Bending over the sheep, syringe in hand, the lad from Blairgowrie High shows only a tremor of nerves. He deftly jabs in the needle while holding the sheep close, then stands up, clearly relieved the ordeal is over.
The next boy steps forward, his eyes never leaving the second sheep to be wormed as it is led into the pen. You can see him swallow hard as the syringe is handed to him.
Getting physical with 120lbs of live mutton is just one of the skills the senior students from Blairgowrie High, who are some of the first to do a Scottish Progression Award in Rural Skills, will be tackling over the next academic year. They will also learn how to handle other farm animals, plan and plant crops and drive tractors.
Others have chosen equine studies or greenkeeping instead of farm enterprises. In total, 28 students will be leaving their books behind each Wednesday afternoon to learn about land-based industries.
"These students are actually going out to farms, golf courses and stables to learn the skills first-hand," says John Fyffe, headteacher at the Perth and Kinross high school, which has just been selected as a School of Ambition, aiming to broaden pupils' aspirations and opportunities.
"But this is only possible because through Lantra, the land-based industries' skills council, we've been able to link up with 10 farmers, two golf courses and an equine centre to offer placements."
The employers have welcomed the opportunity of working with these students as they know they could be the future lifeblood of their industries. Over the next five years, 10,000 recruits are needed by the land-based industries to keep them viable.
All the employers have undertaken training to take the students through the award, and the school's technician, Ben Tyrel, a former further education lecturer and qualified assessor, will visit one or two each week.
For the first year, the course is open only to S5s and S6s, but Mr Fyffe is hoping the school will be able to expand the programme to S3s and S4s as a way of keeping disaffected pupils engaged.
"We're in a rural setting but not all the students are from farming backgrounds," says Jim Pyott, the vocational education co-ordinator at the school. "Some of them maybe would have left at Christmas. Being given the opportunity to do this course will, hopefully, keep them in school. But they are not all from a low ability group. We gave everyone the chance to take part."
Sophie Edwards is studying history, maths and English at Higher level, as well as PE. She took up the course because she loves horses. "I used to ride when I was little, but I haven't for 10 years," she says. "When I was told about the course, I really wanted to do it."
As of this academic year, Sophie will be working at an equine centre every week, doing stable and horse care duties such as mucking out stables, grooming horses and exercising them.
In preparation for the rural skills courses, the students spent three days on a residential course at Oatridge Agricultural College, in Broxburn, West Lothian, in June, culminating in a day trip to the Royal Highland Show outside Edinburgh.
"We realised we couldn't just send the students out without any preparation," explains Mr Pyott. "They needed basic training in health and safety, presentation and such like. So we linked up with Oatridge, which gave the students a three-day taster."
Oatridge College, which is keen to strengthen ties to schools, has a working farm, an equine centre and a nine-hole golf course, so all the students were able to get hands-on experience. The high point was the lesson in tractor driving, starting on the smaller models and by the end driving monsters around the courtyard.
"It was scary at first because I was expecting to crash," says Sophie. "But it was excellent."
Marvin Murray and Daniel Alexander, both fifth years, also put tractor driving at the top of their favourites' list.
"I was thinking of doing greenkeeping because I like golf, but I chose agriculture because I think it will be more useful," Marvin says.
The students are keeping an open mind about their future, but the possibility of working in the land industries is there. Even if only a fraction chose it, Peter Scott, the director of the farm at Oatridge College, would be satisfied. "We need to keep people in the rural areas," he says. "The land industries are facing a massive skills shortage and we need to get students from the cities as well as the rural areas considering them as a career."