Senior pupils stand strong at the helm

2nd September 2011 at 01:00
New session, new head girl and boy - but how useful are they? Kilmarnock College is running leadership courses to train them, as Douglas Blane reports

The idea for a new leadership course aimed at secondary pupils entering sixth year came up in conversation with her daughter, says Carol Nisbet, head of access and inclusion at Kilmarnock College.

"When she became head girl at school, she realised nobody had taught her to be a leader. She started off thinking, as young people often do, that it's about doing everything yourself."

So the core message of the two- day programme delivered at Belmont Academy, Ayr, is that leadership means devolving responsibility and taking advantage of all the skills in a team. It's a lesson best learnt in action.

"I thought working with people you did not know might be tricky," says Belmont pupil George Wylie. "There are 160 in our year group. But we split up into smaller, good-sized groups for the tasks."

"It was fun to talk to people you don't normally get involved with," says Hannah Sosna. "It brought everyone together. I think it worked because we're all young and keen to learn."

There was another reason, says Ms Nisbet. "Group size and dynamics make a difference. So that first day we gave them a series of tasks, with increasing group sizes. We gave them a learning log and asked them, after each task, to reflect on what they had learnt and whether their ideas had been heard. At first they were."

But as group size increased to eight, then a dozen, and then a full class, voices increasingly failed to be heard and individuals became disengaged, says Ms Nisbet. "There's one challenge, called Helium Sticks, that's impossible with a whole class, but a skoosh with a group of four. So we got them to do it with decreasing group sizes until it worked - and asked them to think about what that showed."

The final challenge on the first day was to create an illustrated newspaper, reporting on the day's activities. This was tough, since they were given just 20 minutes - and it was about to get a whole lot tougher. The entire year-group was then asked to prepare a breakfast TV show and present it the following day.

At this point, depute head George Maxwell began to have misgivings, he says. "It went a bit flat. They looked like they had no idea what to do next. It was quite nerve-wracking. We had handed over a huge responsibility, and as a school we now had no control over what they would do or how it might turn out."

But the pupils rose to the challenge spectacularly well, says headteacher Alan Moir. "You're normally controlling them all the time in school - saying what they can and cannot do. This time we gave them freedom. With that comes unpredictability, but in retrospect we needn't have worried. It gelled tremendously.

"They put on a fabulous performance and had clearly approached the task seriously, responsibly and creatively - and the ones who stood out in performance weren't the ones you might have predicted."

The show was funny and entertaining, says Mr Maxwell. "But behind it was a huge amount of delegation and leadership skills absorbed during the day. Without anyone telling them, they went away that first night and organised themselves on Facebook into groups to work on the different sections of the show."

Those sections were specified by Kilmarnock College - two hosts on the couch, news, weather, headteacher interview, exercise, cooking and fashion features, and an original song about being a sixth-year at Belmont Academy. But content and delivery was all up to the pupils.

George Wylie was astonished at how well it went, he says. "When we were given the task, I thought it would never happen. I couldn't believe how well everyone came together and did their different jobs."

"It seemed flaky at first," says Hannah. "We had hardly any time. But in a way that helped. Everyone wanted to make it work and put a huge amount of effort into it."

Organising people was the hardest part, says Chloe Crainie. "You had to make compromises and think logically. One thing it taught me was that you can talk to anybody in your year - they don't have to be in your group. It helped the whole year in that way. We all talk to each other now."

The risk in putting so much trust in youngsters is small, says Ms Nisbet. "I've been working with young people a long time. I know that if you give them responsibility and the right tools, they rise to the occasion."

The challenge for budding leaders

Kilmarnock College's two-day course for senior secondary pupils consists of a series of challenges with increasing group sizes, including What is a Leader?, String it Together, Human Knot, Tower of Power, and Helium Sticks. The first day culminates in the production, by class-sized groups, of an illustrated newspaper, The Leadership Times.

The whole year group is then asked to use their new skills and insights to prepare, rehearse, film and deliver a breakfast TV show by 2.30pm the following day.

"One lesson learnt from last year, when we ran the course for the first time, was to build in more time for reflection," says Carol Nisbet.

"The other difference was that six class-sized groups did the final tasks separately last year. But it is far more effective in pulling them together if they tackle a major challenge as a year group."

Contact Carol Nisbet: T 01563 523 501; E

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