Pushing their boundaries
white linen, sparkling glass and pale blue pools of light create a sense of something special happening in the heart of Edinburgh. So, too, does the tension turning to smiles around the tables, as brown envelopes are opened and winners announced at the annual Scottish Qualifications Authority's Awards.
Graham Collins, who gained gold in the school candidate of the year category, has something to smile about. There's an impressive certificate and a mysterious cardboard box, for a start, which turns out to contain a new laptop. "This is fantastic," he says. "I thought it was a jumper."
But minds and hearts have contents at least as interesting as prize packages. "When we were struggling to get Graham into a good school six years ago, we never imagined anything like this," says Cliff Collins, his delighted dad.
Now in his first year of an outdoor pursuits course at North Glasgow College, Graham remembers his schooldays well: "The teachers really helped.
If you didn't understand, they took the time to explain."
Graham seems more poised at such a glittering occasion than any 17-year-old not long out of school has a right to be. But gaining social confidence, and its outward appearance, did not come easily to him because his brain "works differently".
"They told me when I was 12 that I had Asperger's. I thought at first it was some sort of disease. But it's something I was born with. It's not a disease.
"I had problems when I was a wee boy. I couldn't speak properly. So they put me through speech and language therapy. That helped. I was shy talking to people because I wasn't sure what I was going to say. If someone asked me a question I didn't understand, I wouldn't be sure how to answer in the proper way. I'd get muddled."
This year his school, Abercorn in Glasgow, got a glowing report from HM Inspectors of Education who commented on its ability to instil "a set of positive values and attitudes, including a remarkable confidence and assuredness" in its pupils. But while the destination might be similar for most of the 120 youngsters at the special secondary, the journey is different for each of them.
"We are getting more and more children with autistic spectrum disorder,"
says headteacher Catherine McPhillips. "So our staff have attended courses on how to manage these kids. That helps us to tune into the needs of kids like Graham."
Music was also central to the slow process of helping a struggling boy become an accomplished young man, says his headteacher. "He learned the keyboard, played in a band, cut several CDs. A bond formed between Graham and the music teacher.
"When he came to Abercorn, Asperger's consumed his life. But gradually school and social events took over. He led the student council. He achieved at Standard grade and Intermediate. He became one of the leading lights in the school. By S6, he was a self-assured young man."
Sports came to play a big part in Graham's life and he is enjoying the college course. "We get all kinds of outdoor pursuits, like hillwalking and kayaking - that's tough. We're going to France for a week of ski training,"
he says. "I was in the Special Olympics last year, in the swimming. I trained for a full year. It was massive and nerve-wracking and - a bit like today - I never thought I could get into it. It was one of the greatest things of my life."
The experience led to Graham's ambition to become an outdoor instructor. It also gave him the idea of volunteering to teach swimming to younger children with special needs, which he does every week. "I coach a boy of nine who has a physical disability but is a fantastic swimmer, and I have older kids too."
Courses on coaching children with disabilities were a big help, Graham says, and his teaching is improving with practice. But the most important factor when coaching is something he learned at Abercorn: "If you want to teach people well, they have to know they can trust you."
SQA Award-winning pupils
Emil Hewage, Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen
Emil gained five Advanced Highers at band 1, grade A this year. He is a member of the debating and kayaking clubs, plays cricket for school and county, and is a prefect.
Rachel Tolsworthy, Thurso High, Highland Rachel gained nine Standard grades at level 1 in all elements. As a talented actress and singer, she is prominent in school shows and choirs and is a keen member of the local dramatic society.
Candidate of the Year - School
Craig Napier, Bannerman High, Glasgow
Craig gained five grade A band 1 Highers. He edits the school newspaper and plays football for the school. He is a house captain and serves on the city's student council. He recently won a place at the Scottish Space School.
Katie McGoohan, Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh
Katie gained nine Standard grades, eight at grade 1 and the ninth, music, in her own time. She plays clarinet with the school band and an Edinburgh schools orchestra.
IN HINDSIGHT, it is clear why Samira Rudig-Sotomayor won gold in the academic excellence category. Seven A grade Highers in fifth year, Duke of Edinburgh awards, evening classes in art and languages, and a cutting-edge cell engineering project helped make her an outstanding candidate.
But the 17-year-old wasn't the only one. "The others are amazing, and I thought I had no chance of winning," says the Glasgow Academy sixth-year student whose aim is to study life sciences at Cambridge. "Science makes me happy. When you're doing a project, you see things no one has seen before.
It's like when you climb a peak and you get that view at the top. It's about exploring. I'd love to have lived when the world was being discovered, and sailed with Christopher Columbus."
With a Chilean physicist mother and a German political scientist father, Samira is already familiar with a mix of cultures, countries and languages.
"I don't talk to my mum every day, so I take Spanish evening classes to keep up," she says.
She also attends evening classes in art, a subject she had to drop after Standard grade. "It's something I want to do, almost have to do. With science you're excited and happy, finding out how everything works. Art is different. There's no real point to it. The two sides, science and art, have always been part of me, part of my family. I can see myself in a rocking chair when I'm 70, reading a biology book in the morning and painting in the afternoon."
Samira attributes her success so far to the influence of parents and school, and a slice of good fortune. "I like it when teachers encourage me and let me learn in ways that suit me. I'm an only child, which has lots of advantages. I don't have to compete with siblings for time and attention.
My mum and dad treat me like an adult, and are never too strict. I think the more children people have, the stricter they need to be with them. Then the kids rebel when they get older."
Now in her sixth year at school and studying three Advanced Highers, Samira has no grand plan for the future, and would not really want one, she says.
Uncertainty makes her feel good, and the footloose insecurity of young scientists' early careers appeals. She has chosen biology at the moment, rather than any other science, because "it's about living things, which I like. I will reassess when I've got my degree. Everything could change then."
In just one area, Samira has already made a long-term decision and has come down, for once, on the side of security. Art will always be a part of her life, but not a career. "I've got used to a certain way of life and I like the heating on," she laughs. "I had this dream once where I was a struggling artist. I was freezing. That is not the life for me."