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From vulnerable to 'can do' people

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The motto of pupils at Merkland School, in East Dunbartonshire, is "To be the best we can be". Being enterprising and ambitious are just part of living up to that ideal.

The special school for 74 pupils, aged 5 to 18, with a wide range of additional support needs, has won the Most Enterprising Special School category in the recent Scottish Education Awards.

The enterprises range from making pen-and-pencil sets in the technical department to organising a weekly coffee-shop - a task which combines everything from pricing and budgeting to measuring, baking and table- service.

The cafe has been running for a few years now and serves as in-house work experience for the S4 pupils. This year it had an Irish theme, but in previous years it has adopted different themes.

The pupils go out to other cafes to find out about uniforms, food presentation, and health and safety issues. The programme can also cover laundry, events management, and shopping - all useful life skills.

S3 pupils organise a community event; it is usually a party for children at Easter time. They write invitations, do the catering, set tables, organise and run party games, and provide a gift for every young guest.

For pupils in S5-6, the focus is more on working life. Each investigates a job they would like to do. This usually involves interviewing local people about their jobs, drawing up questionnaires and then making a PowerPoint presentation at a pupil-run conference to which parents, employers, younger classes and local supporters are invited.

Guests to the school have included Edinburgh schoolboy entrepreneur Fraser Doherty, dubbed Jam Boy for his success in launching a range of sugar-free jams called SuperJam to supermarkets before he was 18. He spoke to the pupils about running your own business.

Local organisations and companies have been very supportive in offering work experience. Asda is a business partner, and Lenzie golf club and the local Spar supermarket have good relationships. Pupils find placements in lawyers' offices, a cycle shop and the talking newspaper run by Deafblind Scotland.

"We do see them changing in S4 after being involved in the cafe," says Anne Mulvenna, the head. "They become a lot more confident."

Wilma Scott, the depute head, adds: "They are also more appreciative of each other because they have to work as a team. It's a year when they really grow up."

The pupils have also set up a Young Enterprise company, which has sold everything from pen-and-pencil sets to ceramics at a fair with other schools, and their production of A Sound of Music raised pound;1,000.

"Compared to the children that come in, who are socially very vulnerable with very low esteem and a greater awareness of their challenges than their strengths, that is completely reversed," says Ms Mulvenna, "and they have a greater sense of being a `can do' person."

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