As the Education Minister calls for non-academic achievements to be recognised in a national qualifications framework, Su Clark looks at one experimental programme being adopted by Queensferry High in Edinburgh
All the young people hand-picked to do the first xl programme at Queensferry High were prime candidates for the NEET group (not in education, employment or training) - they would never be able to hold down a job, they hated school and they had such low expectations that training was probably out of the question.
Thinking back, Margaret Macfarlane, depute head at Queensferry, which sits in the shadow of the great, but rusting, Forth Bridge, counts off a scarily large number who were close to permanent exclusion by the end of S2. Yet, two years later, all look as if they could have a future. Two have got full-time jobs, one is an apprentice, five are going to college, and four have returned to school to continue their education.
The xl project set up at Queensferry High, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, is part of a greater experiment, funded by the council, where youth workers are placed full time in schools. A short way into the pilot, Claire Spence, a newly-qualified youth worker, arrived at the school.
"My role is to be another layer of support for those pupils at risk of disengaging from school. It is complementary to guidance," explains Miss Spence, who is casually dressed and sports a bleached crop. "I have a more informal role, and the idea is that the pupils are able to relate to me more. I'm a bit younger maybe, and I wear jeans."
A second youth worker, Isla Anderson, has since joined Miss Spence. Between them they run drop-in sessions at lunchtime and break; provide one-to-one support for those struggling within school; operate a junior and community sport leadership award; have organised and trained sixth-year mentors and have set up a young men's group to deal with the challenges facing boys, such as alcohol abuse or criminal behaviour.
"From the beginning I felt it was going to be worthwhile and now I'm convinced of it. We have just had our funding extended to 2008. But if there were no more money after that, then we would have to find it within our budget," says Mrs Macfarlane, who was acting head when the scheme was introduced.
As part of the pilot, Queensferry was given the freedom to develop the resource as appropriate for the school. It chose to introduce the "xlerate into xl" programme. Developed by the Prince's Trust and based on its successful xl clubs in England, the Scottish programme was launched in 2004. It involves providing a multi-agency approach to dealing with the most disengaged and underachieving pupils in S3 and S4, based on a five-element programme. Each school is given the elements, but is encouraged to develop its own approach to delivering them, although they are supported by regular visits from a Prince's Trust co-ordinator.
Queensferry chose to implement it as part of the curriculum; allocating it three hours a week within the timetable and treating it like a Standard grade.
A report by Durham University recently praised Scotland's "xlerate with xl"
as "an excellent and very effective programme" which has had "a significant impact" on young people. Many of them have achieved recognition from the awarding body, ASDAN.
"It is vitally important that we recognise success beyond academic achievement," continues Mrs Macfarlane. "A Curriculum for Excellence is addressing this. Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, has recognised that schools are already offering vocational and skills-based courses. At Queensferry High, through ASDAN and xl, we believe we are enabling some young people to achieve their potential. Xl fits well with the four capacities of CfE with students undertaking activities in enterprise, citizenship, community awareness and involvement, world of work and work experience, interpersonal and team skills."
To receive an award, pupils must complete all five compulsory elements of xl. A sixth element, involving a residential experience must be completed if pupils are to reach gold. It is a practical, interactive course, which also requires some written evidence.
Earlier this year the Scottish Executive announced a further pound;1 million commitment over the next two years to extend the programme as part of its Determined to Succeed strategy and to contribute to the More Choices, More Chances strategy.
Miss Spence is responsible for the scheme, along with three teachers who each take one of the current three groups, and often with the support of a classroom assistant, Lesley Summers. Getting the relationship right between teacher, youth worker and classroom assistant is crucial.
"You need to be able to read each other well," says Val Addison, the first xl teacher at Queensferry but now retired. "You need to be able to switch leading the group between you, so that if one needs to work one-to-one with a pupil, it is possible."
The success of the first two cohorts - four of the original group of 14 achieved gold, a standard reached by just 26 people out of approximately 800 in the whole of the UK in the last session - has persuaded the school to run two groups in its current S3.
The numbers of each group are kept to a maximum of 14, but as they contain those pupils manifesting the most challenging behaviour all in one room together, it can be a daunting prospect. Laura Thompson, a drama teacher, has been the teacher of the second cohort, now in S4 and working towards their gold or silver levels.
"When it started, the pupils were quite calm because they didn't know what was going to happen, but by about September or October they were manifesting quite challenging behaviour," she recalls.
"It is a difficult balance - it has to be more informal than a normal classroom, but there still has to be a sense that this is a classroom experience within a school environment. You have to find a way to ensure the kids are comfortable and willing to come, but make them understand what is acceptable and what isn't."
She admits that getting the pupils to accept any sort of code of behaviour was difficult, but they eventually recognised the need for rules of some kind. Xl includes a three-strikes-and-you-are-out system: one misdemeanour leads to first yellow, two leads to second yellow and third to red and removal from the class.
Currently pupils are preparing for work experience that will see them working in a hairdresser's, a florist, a primary, and a nursery school, and at a youth centre among others.
During the class, pupils stand up and walk out, one takes a call on her mobile, most are talking at the same time, while the two boys say very little throughout the session. As the previous class had been mock interviews, held with Mrs Summers, she seems to be leading the discussion, while Miss Thompson and Miss Spence engage on a more informal level with the pupils. Miss Spence moves casually around the class to sit near any pupil being more disruptive than the others. She asks, rather than orders, the young woman to end her conversation on her mobile.
"It is difficult at first getting used to working with other people in the class, and to the idea that you are not teaching, but guiding," Miss Thompson says .
All the students in the current S4 cohort have achieved bronze and are working towards the next levels. According to Mrs Addison, this is one of the major assets of the course, that there is something to be gained early on. It motivates pupils to go even further.
But the course also has value because of its practical approach that develops team-working, willingness to learn and determination to finish a task - skills that these pupils were not learning within the formal setting of school, and which should now help them transfer more easily into the adult world of work.