Young ambassadors offer a fresh perspective on Falkirk's fortunes
Amy Joyce used to dream about living in the US, flitting between Hollywood Boulevard and the shops of downtown Manhattan. She was only in P6, but had already decided there was no point staying in Stenhousemuir when she grew up.
A year later, Falkirk trumps Florida: Amy, 11, wants to live and work here, and sees it as her mission to tell everyone else why it's such a great place. So what happened?
Stenhousemuir Primary head Linda-Anne Reid is on the education and business links group for My Future's in Falkirk, a scheme devised by the local council to boost economic development.
"We're trying to encourage young people in Falkirk to take pride in their area and understand there are a lot of job opportunities here," she says.
In 2008, the group hit upon the idea of involving P6 pupils as "young ambassadors". Lottery funding of pound;10,000 was secured to create 15 ambassadors in each of the eight Larbert High cluster primaries, with peer support from S5 drama students.
The project began in January last year, centred on a play that shows what Falkirk has to offer. In the play, ambassadors become either roving reporters for My Future's in Falkirk News at Now, or their interviewees - leading figures in the arts, sports and business. Two from each school form a troupe that takes the play around the authority.
The ambassadors have performed to other pupils, at continuing professional development events for teachers and at an event to attract new businesses to Falkirk. One businessman told Mrs Reid his "heart sank" when a group of performing pupils walked in, fearing something worthy and dull, but left persuaded that these knowledgeable pupils would make businesses more likely to invest in Falkirk.
The ambassadors have come a long way. When The TESS met four from Stenhousemuir Primary - Amy and fellow 11-year-olds Craig Weir, Lauren Merrilees and Jodie Robertson - they all admitted that before becoming ambassadors, none knew what their area's most famous landmark, the Falkirk Wheel, actually did. They were impressed to find their area was home to a unique piece of engineering: the world's only rotating boat lift.
They learned about other landmarks: the Bo'Ness Hippodrome, Scotland's oldest purpose-built cinema; the Helix, a proposed urban park to be guarded by two 30-metre-high horse-like structures known as "kelpies"; and the Antonine Wall, a Roman construction that became a World Heritage Site in 2008. One major attraction, the annual Big in Falkirk street arts festival, was killed off by budget cuts, necessitating a rewrite of the play.
There was a need to instil pride in local children, says Mrs Reid. The decline of heavy industry and emergence of a more transient population, as Falkirk became a dormitory town for Glasgow and Edinburgh, eroded the area's collective memory: the history of nearby Stirling, with its castle and monuments, "seemed to offer a lot more".
Before becoming an ambassador, Lauren "didn't really know much about Falkirk at all - I just thought it was a boring place". Amy's surprise at Falkirk's rich history - particularly the importance of its canals and status as the birthplace of Irn Bru - was typical: "I didn't think we were that interesting."
Mrs Reid says civic pride is crucial in Stenhousemuir, a separate town in the Falkirk Council area. Some ambassadors are long-time high-fliers, but others were debilitated by low confidence; being ambassadors has transformed them into effusive defenders of Falkirk's reputation. This, says Mrs Reid, is a perfect example of how learning and pastoral care can come together.
Lauren is one of Falkirk's most vocal champions. She went to live in Inverness for a short time, convinced that the Highland capital would make a picture postcard contrast to her hometown. But a penny has dropped recently: "Stenhousemuir's much nicer," she says.
All four Stenhousemuir Primary pupils see themselves staying in Falkirk as adults. Lauren wants to go into business, "so I could represent the area". Jodie hopes to be a rollercoaster designer, striving to build a theme park in Falkirk.
Opening pupils' eyes to what's on their doorstep does not end with the ambassadors. Stenhousemuir Primary has made a concerted bid to build bridges with other schools, organisations and businesses.
P1s have explored books with special needs pupils from Carrongrange School. P5s set up a school bank with the Royal Bank of Scotland, and a fashion show with Matalan. P7s designed restaurants, as part of a healthy eating project, with help from former River City actor and owner of the town's d'yoga restaurant, Ricky Dhillon.
But the ambassadors are key. Larbert High head Jon Reid is considering how to let them continue their work when they move into S1 next year. Mrs Reid - no relation - is mulling over a plan to make parents ambassadors, and hopes the scheme will not only pass on to successive P6 classes, but expand further: "We want all young people in Falkirk to be ambassadors," she says.
The ambassadors are already going beyond their remit. Lauren was on holiday at Seton Sands, East Lothian, when she made friends with a girl who knew nothing about Falkirk. But her new friend was not ignorant for long. When they parted, Lauren's first priority was not to exchange addresses: "I asked her, `What did you learn about Falkirk?'"
Henry Hepburn, email@example.com.