Bog-standard comprehensives are fighting back. David Henderson reports from a landmark conference hosted by North Lanarkshire
Call centres are central to the worldwide 247 service mentality. Now they are equally central to the emerging vocational curriculum at Cumbernauld High where the first groups of Scottish pupils are learning the practical skills behind the headsets.
Around 25 S3 and S4 pupils are taught how to master the latest technology, deal with the public, answer questions and handle the conflicts that inevitably arise.
Isobel MacNaughtan, the school's headteacher, is quick to offer assurance that the school is not pushing young people into call centre work, although that might later be an option for some or for others during holidays.
"It's for the skills," Ms MacNaughtan says. "This is a really great training for young people in communication skills. They are dealing with people, learning how to speak with confidence and communicating well. They love it. It's very practical and they like working with college lecturers."
The school was motivated to try a novel approach because of the presence in the town of Morgan Stanley, a call centre training specialist. The first batch of pupils went to Cumbernauld College for their introduction but now the school has a pound;20,000 training centre and college staff come in.
"It's much more satisfactory," Ms MacNaughtan says.
Pupils spend three periods a week and have work experience at Morgan Stanley. It all leads to a vocational qualification.
The company is considering a form of paid work experience for senior pupils to wean them off out-of-school jobs that can run to 25 hours a week. Ms MacNaughtan said that a contract that offered no more than eight hours a week of call centre work might persuade young people to study more.
Research from Paisley University showed that limited work outside school boosted performance. "Even those leaving school with good Highers tend not to perform so well at interviews or speak well and we see this as something that will develop these skills," Ms MacNaughtan says.