On track with off-roaders

20th July 2012 at 01:00
A project on Shetland that offers life skills and work experience to Neet teenagers is helping to turn lives around. Julia Horton reports

Zoe Henry is blunt as she admits what her life was destined to be like after leaving school with just three low Standard grades: "I'd probably be sitting at home."

But two years later, she has better qualifications, a job she enjoys and plans to go to college on the mainland.

The 18-year-old is one of dozens of teenagers across Shetland whose prospects are being turned around by an innovative island project called the Bridges.

It helps young people aged 15-19 who are not in education, employment or training (Neet) and do not fit into existing national government-funded schemes either.

Staffed predominantly by youth workers, the Bridges offers a mixture of life skills and work experience, helping teenagers to learn by taking the time to discover their interests and abilities and creating activities around them.

Since 2005 the project has been funded by the council, with which it also works closely to help youngsters develop better relationships within their communities.

One of the most popular activities recently has involved Bridge teenagers renovating Land Rovers with an environmental health officer, a support worker and a mechanic.

Bridges coordinator Brenda Leask explains: "The council wanted to relate better to these young people in an attempt to address noise complaints, and one of the environmental health officers is really keen on Land Rovers, so once a week he works with a group of students who are also really interested in Land Rovers to renovate the vehicles.

"They have just got the last one through its MOT and are about to start off-roading in it in the summer holidays with a local group."

Most of the learning experiences are delivered in a similarly informal setting, away from the Bridges centre in Lerwick.

However, the centre also has a single, basic classroom where lessons in maths and English are delivered each week by Arnold Tait, principal teacher at Shetland's additional support needs base.

He says: "If you're looking for ways for schools and colleges to widen their appeal to youngsters who are difficult to reach, I think Bridges is a good model for being more inventive, looking at what each child can manage and working around what's achievable to them rather than saying `This is what we do on a Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon, you can come if you want'."

While standards in maths and English are already being driven up, he believes more can be done, adding: "At the moment we're really delivering what you would call traditional, paper-based classes for literacy and numeracy.

"I hope we can provide something more user-friendly in future, finding more ways of using the knowledge which they gain from experiences like the Land Rover club for (improving) their language skills."

The success rate at the Bridges is high, with 92 per cent of young people on average leaving after a year to move on to a job, college course or further training.

Recalling how it helped her, Zoe says: "I didn't really like school. I didn't get on with the teachers. At the Bridges it's much more welcoming and they make more of an effort with you. You feel you're being treated like a person.

"I did my maths and English again and came out with better grades. Work experience gave you a chance to see what a job was like, and if you stuck with it for a week you would get a reference."

After placements at a school and a hospital kitchen, she is now cooking and cleaning in a Bamp;B. Meanwhile, as she goes through the process of applying to a college, she says the Bridges is still supporting her.

"Whenever I need anything I can just phone them, they don't forget about us," she says.

Learning through laughter

Laughter therapy is not the kind of thing you expect to find on any curriculum. But at the Bridges project, youth workers are trying new ways of engaging teenagers in learning.

So when a local comedian started offering community classes, young people from the Bridges also took part. "It was about looking on the positive side of things, allowing yourself to laugh. It was a great icebreaker. Even if you tried to be grumpy, you still ended up laughing," says Bridges coordinator and youth worker Brenda Leask.

Joking aside, she believes that the range of indoor and outdoor activities offered by the project are the perfect soft skills now required under the CfE approach.

"Everything we plan is within CfE, we evaluate within that and we can speak the same language as the teachers who come in, although we're not teachers," she says.

"The senior phase curriculum timetable now looks like something we do here, although we never really know what we're doing until the week we're doing it because it's so student-led."

At a cost to the council of 200,000 per year for 30 teens, she believes the Bridges is also a value for money model for senior phase, compared to the cost of behavioural units.

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