Young entrepreneurs grab a pizza the action
There is a light flurry of snow falling outside, as the Christmas tree pizzas come out of the oven and smells of warm dough waft along the school corridor.
A few teams have taken up the festive theme for this year's Schools Industry Challenge at Banchory Academy, where more than 120 first years have been split into 10 companies, each creating a new brand of pizza.
There is a pizza shaped like a star next to the Christmas trees, and the smell of roasted cheese mingled with roast peppers begs the tantalising question of whether only a glutton would eat pizza for elevenses. The judges haven't seen these creations yet, so the question is academic and the pizzas are safe.
It's like Santa's grotto around the school today and everyone is hard at work. Here, in home economics, the bakers have been preparing ingredients and checking oven temperatures before assembling their final creations. In art, the pupils are designing the packaging; in music, they are composing the radio jingle for their advertising campaign; and in IT they are preparing the business presentation, pamphlets and business cards. Each team has been assigned an external business mentor to give guidance.
This year the school's challenge is organised by Macphie of Glenbervie, a family firm from Stonehaven which manufactures food ingredients. This company has been running school challenges since 2001 and, over the past decade, more than 3,000 youngsters in primary and secondary schools have learnt more about how the food industry works.
Team Fantastico has come up with the idea of a seasonal pizza, so as well as its festive offering of Santa's Seasonal Slice, it's planning summer and spring slices - and a slimy version for Halloween.
Its Christmas tree pizza has a vote of confidence from Fantastico team chefs and tasters Jennifer Dow, 12, and Olivia Churchfield, 11. "It's nice and crunchy, just how I like it. And there are lots of bouncy flavours - they just bounce off your mouth," says Jennifer, who has a career awaiting her in advertising if she doesn't opt for a chef's role.
Fantastico's business mentor is Craig Burnett, 25, a former pupil of this school, who is now an engineer with Talisman Energy. "I'm really impressed with their ideas and the things they think about," says Craig.
He has noticed the pupils identify free-range and healthy raw materials as selling points, which he doesn't think would have happened when he was that age. "That's one of our marketing styles - the fact that it's free range and healthy eating. These were the first things they mentioned," says Craig.
Along the corridor, musicians Emily Griffiths, 12, and her cousin Sam Groucott, 12, are at the keyboard, working on their team's promotional jingle which has been inspired by the Lady Gaga song Bad Romance.
"I want that pizza and I want it now," Sam sings, as Emily accompanies him on keyboards. Music teacher Fiona Petrie says they have to account for their time and equipment in their budget.
"They have had to manage their money properly and they have to pay for use of the department - and if they use instruments, they have to pay," she explains.
The school's headteacher, Sheila Di Maio, thinks this challenge is good preparation for life and the workplace. "It's reasonably near the start of S1. They are in mixed groups - groups that they have not been in for classes. So it's also helping them get to know people they haven't worked with before."
The business adviser gives teams guidance with a business plan and marketing strategy. "They have to come up with a company name and a pizza name, and they also have to cost the pizza and decide how they are going to market it and still have a profit," says Mrs Di Maio.
Later in the afternoon, after the judges have conferred, Christmas comes early for the aptly-named team Fantastico, which takes first prize with Santa's Seasonal Slice.
A GAP IN THE FOOD SKILLS MARKET
There is a real shortage of food scientists and technologists, with one in every five jobs hard to fill, according to the skills sector body for the food and drink industry.
The Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland are helping to fund a new national initiative, A Future in Food, to bring schools and food and drink manufacturers together and increase awareness of job opportunities.
Family firm Macphie of Glenbervie supports this initiative and, with challenges like the one at Banchory Academy, is showing pupils how the food industry can provide a range of opportunities at a time when many sectors are badly hit by the recession.
Depute headteacher at Banchory Academy, Colin Nicoll, believes bringing in external business mentors for this challenge has been particularly beneficial. "The pupils respond well when we bring people in from outwith the school and it really boosts their confidence. The mentors bring a different dimension and perspective to the challenge."
But businesses also benefit from this kind of partnership. It helps them to showcase career opportunities, and the connection with young people stimulates their employees.
Sylvia Halkerston, human resources director at Macphie of Glenbervie, says: "Image has always been a big negative for the food and drink industry and the perception that it's all white coats and welly boots is one we must all strive to shake off.
"We're getting there, but it remains a real challenge for us to convince youngsters that our industry can offer them a long-term career," she says. "What we have to do is give them a range of experiences that will actually help them consider a career - offering real opportunities - in our industry.
"If we can work with schools, we can show young people how an interest in business studies, marketing, engineering or IT, for example, can be linked in with the food and drink industry. This supports teachers because what we are able to provide slots into Curriculum for Excellence."