New mentoring scheme helping to engage young minds

THEY are the best days of your life, a time when you’ll never be more carefree. But most of us would probably admit that school days are often anything but.

For whatever reason, we might struggle to achieve our potential. We might feel isolated by our peers or targeted by our teachers. We might be perfectly bright, but not particularly academic; or achieving academically but crippled by a lack of confidence. And a combination of classes bursting at the seams and a narrow curriculum means many pupils start playing up, become disengaged with the whole concept of education or simply drop off the radar altogether.

Every year, thousands of these children leave school without a single qualification. There are currently more than a million people in the UK not in education,employment or training– so-called NEETs – and each one costs the country a staggering £97,000 a year.

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November also marks Scottish Youth Work Week, with a major conference at Edinburgh’s Easter Road stadium, proving education and engaging with hard-to-reach young people is high on the political agenda.

But for Sarah Seery, a pupil at the capital’s Leith Academy, it wasn’t a case of not being able to keep up. Nor was she messing about in class. Quite the opposite, in fact: she was withdrawn, quiet, never speaking up, never contributing. So when a teacher suggested she join the Skillforce programme, she wasn’t convinced. “I went to the class and I thought, ‘I don’t like this. It’s so embarrassing.’”

But gradually, over half an hour a week for a year, through a mix of class-based learning and outdoor activities, she grew into the confident young woman she is today. “I’ve changed so much,” she says. “I do things I would never have done before. Like helping organise school assemblies. And talking to you – last year there’s no way I would have done that.”

Now aged 16, she is working towards five Highers and plans to go to Napier University to study immunology. It’s a path she might never have taken had Skillforce not given her the confidence to apply. “The classes are fun,” she says. “You don’t feel like you’re a child when you’re there. The leaders treat us not like friends, but like we’re equals.”

Skillforce launched in Scotland in 2004 and now works in 41 schools with groups aged 13 to 18. “They’re in third year,” explains Karen Wilson, development manager for the charity in Scotland. “They’re on the cusp of achieving or not achieving. It’s a really important stage in their lives. They are maybe disengaging with education or need help to aspire. There are some who are non-academic and need help getting employment, and some who are academic but need help with their confidence – it’s a real mix.”

This critical age group is also at the heart of Education Scotland’s Jet (jobs, education, training) programme, which includes work experience and vocational training for those pupils whose route from school to the world of employment or training may be looking uncertain. What started in just two schools working with 20 pupils has grown to include 13 schools and more than 150 pupils.

For half a day every week, the young people train for jobs that could include anything from hairdressing and childcare to mechanics, business administration or a manual trade. Crucially, perhaps, a place on the course is dependent on the pupil improving their attendance, time-keeping or attitude. As a result, 31 per cent of participants progress straight into employment, 28 per cent go on to further education and 24 per cent stay on at school for a further year.

Skillforce classes are part of the school timetable, but are not necessarily work-related – some do life skills, budgeting and basic car maintenance while others might focus on things like completing a Duke of Edinburgh Award or playing rugby with Edinburgh Academicals, through sponsorship from jeweller Hamilton & Inches. It all depends on a particular group’s needs, and schools pinpoint the youngsters who could do with help. The results, says Wilson, speak for themselves: 24 per cent predicted exclusion is reduced to just four per cent, 92 per cent of those who take part come out with awards and qualifications, and 95 per cent move on to a job or further education. Ninety per cent of those who take part say they feel more confident and positive as a result.

Three quarters of instructors are ex-servicemen and women. Hannah Smith, though, who works at Leith Academy, studied sculpture and worked on her family’s farm in the north of Scotland before volunteering and then eventually working full-time for the charity. “I get really close to the kids,” she says. “I stay on after school to help them with homework and things like that. It’s really good to see them develop and change. There was one boy who was on the edge of leaving school – he just didn’t get on well with the teachers. Now he comes and talks to me – he’s a grown-up, he has Highers, he has a job.”

Another group of boys were known for messing about, smashing things, knocking things off the wall. “They learned to own up to it, apologise, and now they don’t do it at all,” says Smith. “They’re now off getting jobs.”

And a girl she worked with had problems at home. “She was adamant she wasn’t going to stay on. She used to say, ‘As soon as I’m old enough I’m leaving.’ But she’s still there, now in fifth year. She’s doing heaps of subjects. Her home life is still terrible but she comes into the staff room and she chats with us. She would never have done that before she started.

“We don’t act like teachers,” she adds, we’re more like friends. I’m not much older than some of them so I can still identify with them. You’re convinced all the teachers hate you and are against you. You don’t realise at the time that they only want the best for you.”

“There are a lot of young people out there who we reckon are within that 20 per cent youth population who are not quite getting there for whatever reason, and are in danger of falling through all the stools,” agrees Jim Sweeney, chief executive of YouthLink Scotland, an umbrella organisation that includes anything from Scouts to Barnardo’s to the Prince’s Trust. “Name a youth organisation,” he says, “and they will be members of YouthLink.”

Identifying the reason why this is the case is difficult. It could be something to do with their home situation, the young person could be in trouble with the police or they may simply not thrive in the school environment. “Psychologists would probably agree that there are many ways to learn and many different ways to motivate people to learn, and sometimes the classroom situation is not it,” says Sweeney.

“That’s where you need other people with other skillsets to help, with the same aim but done in a different way with different techniques. That’s what youth work brings, working with young people on their own territory rather than trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole.

“There’s a great African proverb,” he adds, “which says it takes a whole village to educate a child. You can’t expect a teacher or a group of teachers to have all the answers. You can’t expect the parents to have all the answers. It’s a partnership, and part of that partnership is being exposed to youth work activities that broaden their minds, that take them in a different direction and that give them an opportunity to push themselves in a different way.”

Ultimately, formal education is often re-introduced, “because, at the end of the day, society accepts and recognises certain types of qualifications more than others”. But the problem of disengaged young people is one that is growing as the recession keeps its grip. “When there was fuller employment it was easier to find jobs – particularly unskilled jobs – and young people who weren’t academic could fit in. But now the competition is such that, because of the recession, a lot of young people who even had pretty reasonable grades are going to find it difficult.”

YouthLink also has the national coordination role for something called the 16-plus Activity Agreement, a programme that identifies vulnerable young people at risk of falling through the net and provides a customised programme, with a personal mentor, aimed at getting them back into education, training or a job. “In a small country like Scotland, we can’t afford to let tens of thousands of young people wander about aimlessly,” says Sweeney. “Apart from anything there’s the cost and havoc, but also it’s a complete waste of humanity.”