`You can't faff about, it prepares you for work'

17th April 2015 at 01:00
Billionaire Jim McColl's plans to branch out into vocational education were controversial. But Henry Hepburn finds that Newlands Junior College's first cohort is delighted to be there

A school given over to vocational education should be noisy, right? Lots of hammering and hollering, a perpetual clatter and chatter of hands-on endeavour.

Newlands Junior College in Glasgow confounds that notion: in this controversial venture, designed to give a second chance to teens who were getting lost in the school system, a sense of calm prevails.

Visitors are greeted by sleek furniture and bold colours. A row of bar stools and iMacs sits among floor-to-ceiling painted silhouettes of billowing trees. Students and staff wander casually, perusing their phones and supping coffees or energy drinks. The ambience is more like an airline's executive lounge than a harum-scarum school corridor.

Newlands is the creation of billionaire Jim McColl, a Glaswegian who made his fortune in the engineering industry. He has few qualms about venturing into controversial territory, having backed the Yes campaign in the independence referendum and attempts to revive Rangers Football Club after its liquidation in 2012. But in a country with a strong tradition of state-run education, and a city that is the spiritual home of British socialism, this may be an even bolder venture.

Practical partnerships

McColl is no fan of England's academies - schools funded directly by central government with no local authority involvement - insisting instead that a public-private approach suits Scotland best. Local authorities may not prove so keen, however, as the uneasy relationship between McColl and Glasgow education bosses (see panel, page 22) has shown. It remains unclear exactly what the council is prepared to contribute, and some schools seem more enthusiastic about sending pupils to Newlands than others.

The people for whom Newlands was designed, however, are unequivocally enthusiastic. The college opened to students only in November - it has 23 now, mostly boys, with another 30 due to arrive after the summer - but all the young people we speak to say they have made good progress after feeling lost in the traditional system. None of them calls Newlands a school and they get annoyed when people do.

"You get treated as an adult," Keeley Marshall, 14, says. "You work better - there's less people."

Edward Pert, also 14, says Newlands staff "speak to you with respect". Students see little sense of hierarchy - they can call staff by their first names - and they like it that no teacher shouts. "You can have a laugh with them," Edward adds.

Every Newlands student goes through a rigorous selection process. They must first be nominated by their Glasgow southside school, and the college then checks that they will really benefit from - and make the most of - this type of setting.

As a result, the students are grateful for the opportunity and self-policing kicks in if anyone acts up. "When you come here you realise you can't faff about - they're trying to prepare you for work," Edward says.

`A big family'

Newlands has six permanent teaching staff including principal Iain White - they refer to the college as "a big family". The talk today is all about the mouth-watering cakes made by "Auntie Mary" in the canteen. Jim Biggin at reception, a veteran businessman of the furniture trade, talks with avuncular pride about students who are overcoming issues that might have left them "on the scrapheap through no fault of their own".

McColl himself travels between bases in Glasgow and Monaco but makes it into Newlands most weeks to catch up with the students, who know him as "Jim".

There is a timetable with four core subjects - English, maths, ICT and science - but it changes each week. Classes have no more than 15 students, or 10 if taking place in a further education college. Everyone is free to wander the building if they have had enough of the classroom, and there are no bells to mark the end of lessons. Students use erasable pens to scribble thoughts and workings on classroom walls, and they skate slowly around on seats with rollers as they get to grips with ideas.

Depute principal and ICT teacher Philip Graham talks about "de-institutionalising" students and staff. The college's glossy brochures include a page filled by a quote from Maya Angelou, the American writer: "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better."

The principal, who had a maverick reputation during a long spell at Glasgow's Govan High School, says he misses the pupils from his old job but not the bureaucracy and paperwork. Newlands is not superior to school, White stresses, but for a minority of young people it provides "an alternative with a focus on personal development".

Much of this is led by Billy Huxter of SkillForce, a charity that draws on the expertise of former military personnel. Staff arrange a wide variety of student experiences, from working with a poet to trudging knee-high through rivers on Highland expeditions. Each student, too, is allocated a "personal adviser"

Newlands promises every student that after two years they will be guaranteed an apprenticeship or a place on a college course. Dylan McCafferty, 14, says this guarantee motivates students: "You're more confident - you're not thinking if you fail you're not going to get anywhere."

Apprenticeships cover a wide range of sectors - including engineering, finance, hairdressing, childcare, construction and hospitality - but if a student's ambitions head in an unanticipated direction, White says the college will endeavour to set up a place somewhere else.

"What's the end point for students? We don't know," he says. "But what we can be sure of is that if you've got them engaged and willing to explore, then you just go for it."

The college, on the site of one of McColl's factories, has been built to feel like a workplace, with exposed pipes overhead serving as a constant reminder of an industrial heritage. The Newlands prospectus cites the Wood report's advice that working more closely with business and industry should be a "key factor" in preparing pupils better for employment.

New beginnings

The Scottish government has offered qualified backing to the project, telling TESS: "Initiatives such as this, when delivered in partnership with local authorities, can play a useful role in strengthening the delivery of vocational education and equip young people with the skills they need to meet the demands of the workplace and support our economy."

The EIS teaching union is not opposed to Newlands but says it does not have any involvement with the college. "The motivation behind it both looks and sounds genuine, although it does appear to duplicate some of the work of existing partnerships between schools and colleges," a spokesman says.

"The EIS obviously does not oppose philanthropists like Mr McColl supporting education, but we believe proper funding of the state system and the delivery of recommendations from the Wood report [on developing Scotland's young workforce] is the best way to ensure consistent high-quality provision."

But the college wants to inspire ambition as well as improve skills. Jim on reception says the regular visits by McColl and his colleagues mean that students sometimes look up to see a Porsche, Bentley or Ferrari parked outside - and this spurs them to think that by working hard, they may one day drive such a car.

"There's a big, big world out there and the kids have got to get a look at Everest," White says. "They may not get up it in the end, but they've got to get a look."

Birth of an idea: Newlands timeline

2011 TESS first wrote about Jim McColl's idea in October 2011, when he spoke at a schools management conference about establishing a school for pupils who preferred to "learn by doing". Even then, the plan proved contentious.

McColl reckoned that school did not work for 20 per cent of pupils. A delegate from a parents' organisation said the figure was even higher.

Tempers frayed in an audience largely comprised of headteachers and education officials. One senior education officer won a vigorous round of applause when he protested: "I don't think it's right that our high schools are taking a battering."

2012 In January, TESS reported tensions between McColl and Glasgow City Council. Director of education Maureen McKenna said the council was concerned that the college could cost pound;13,500 per pupil compared with pound;5,500 in city secondary schools.

Her alternative proposal was for scholarships, where pupils would still spend most time in their original school. This was rebuffed by McColl as a "non-starter". Having not enjoyed school himself, he felt pupils like him would benefit fully only by being at Newlands all the time.

"You would not get me or another private-sector business seriously doing that. It's just another initiative set up to fail," he said. "You need to get these kids into a different environment and inspire and motivate them on a daily basis."

2012-2013 It seemed that Newlands Junior College might never open. In summer 2012, the city council was reportedly blaming the delay on McColl's "failure to commit" funding of his own. In spring 2013, it emerged that he had shelved plans to open the college that summer.

2014 In June 2014, TESS revealed that Newlands would open that autumn. Six unidentified private investors, as well as the Scottish government and Glasgow City Council, were each understood to have pledged pound;100,000 annually to the scheme. The council, however, said only that it was "looking forward to seeing the curriculum plan and details of the new college".

McColl, meanwhile, was already talking about opening similar colleges in other parts of Scotland.

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