Wired up to ply practical trades

16th April 2010 at 01:00
Strathaven Academy's pre-vocational lunchtime workshops teach the skills prized by local employers

Local employers are not always impressed by paper qualifications in academic subjects, says Jim Gilliland, principal teacher of technology at Strathaven Academy. "They'll say things like, `But if you've been up on a roof, that would be helpful to us.'

"Well, we can't get the kids up on a roof. But we can do the next best thing - teach them the practical skills these people are looking for."

Now in its second year, the school's lunchtime pre-vocational club was set up and resourced with "Determined to Succeed" funding from South Lanarkshire, says headteacher Elspeth Banks - as well as enthusiastic support from local employers and tradesmen.

It was an example of the good practice Strathaven Academy presented to teachers from other schools as part of South Lanarkshire's continuing professional development pilot, "Open Doors" (TESS, February 19, 2010).

Around the workshop, third- and fourth-year pupils are gaining plumbing, tiling, roofing, joinery and electrical skills.

"You're getting to do something useful along with your friends," says Ryan Ballantyne, S3, who is putting together a complex arrangement of copper pipes, plastic joints and bathroom taps.

"The hardest part about this is not getting any leaks. We haven't - because we're good," he says.

But there is more to it than that, explains his partner Cameron Reid, also S3. "In lessons, you have all the stress of doing something within a time. That worries you, so you maybe don't get it right. This is more relaxed. That makes it easier to learn."

At the next workstation two lads are putting white tiles on a dark wall. "I enjoyed the club last year," says fourth-year pupil, Daibhidh Moyes. "So when they asked me to come back and mentor the third-years, I said `yes'."

He launches into a detailed description of a skill that is in great demand among builders: "First you put your adhesive under the tile. Then you put your spacers in. You have to get it all lined up. The hardest part is cutting the tiles to the right size, like this ."

He demonstrates with the tile-cutting machine, producing first a nice clean line, and then a jagged edge, which he holds up for inspection. "See, you couldn't use that."

Staff wouldn't necessarily possess the skills they teach in the workshop, says technology teacher Pauline Martin. "But in this department, we're all quite practical and have picked them up ourselves.

"Teaching in the workshop has a different feel to a normal lesson, even though it is still teaching. For a start, they want to be here. They've got ownership of their work. They can see the progress they're making."

It's good to work with smaller groups, says probationary teacher Natalie Mardones. "You get to show more of your personality and get more feedback from the kids. They chat while doing their work. That makes it enjoyable. We wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't, because we're giving up our lunchtime too."

Although Daibhidh does like mentoring, he's unconvinced about the idea of teaching as a career.

"I like saying, `this is what you do' and then showing them. But I'm not sure I could teach on a daily basis," he says.

In the workshop next door, the skills on show are painting, decorating and roofing - which is quite demanding, says Declan Barrett, S4. "You have to learn how to cut the slates, put holes in them and line them up perfect, so the rain doesn't get through," he explains.

"This is what I want to do when I leave school. I'm going to work with my papa and go to college to do construction."

The practical side of the pre-vocational club is what appeals most to Craig Davidson, S3. "You do get practical stuff in classes like woodwork, but there you're just working with wood," he says. "Here you are doing a bit of everything. There's more variety. You're learning a lot more."

Evidence of that learning goes with pupils who stick with the pre- vocational club for the full 15 weeks, says Mr Gilliland. "We give them this record of achievement to take away with them," he says. "It lists the skills they've gained at each station, as well as more general skills employers are looking for - such as timekeeping, attendance and willingness to co-operate and be flexible.

"We had one lad last year who left school and went for a job with a local employer. He showed them his record of achievement from the pre-vocational club. They took one look at it and said, `start on Monday'."


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