Skillforce arming school-leavers with tools to find work

Louise Falconer, 15, practises first aid on James Black, 15, with help from class teacher Derek Rhoddan.
Louise Falconer, 15, practises first aid on James Black, 15, with help from class teacher Derek Rhoddan.
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UP two flights of stairs and inside an overheated classroom, Derek Rhoddan is standing in front of a class of 15- and 16-year-olds talking about dinner.

On the whiteboard behind him, are written various famous names. Nelson Mandela, some sports stars, a few celebrities. “Come on,” he urges the eight youngsters sitting in front of him, “who else is coming to dinner?”

Derek, 35, has bulging biceps under his crisp blue shirt, neatly cropped hair, a deep tan. He looks like he’s spent significantly more time at the gym than may be expected of your usual bookish secondary school teacher.

Embroidered on his shirt sleeve is a blood red poppy – a glaring clue to the battle-scarred route he’s taken to get to Wester Hailes Education Centre and to this class of teenagers who, just a short time ago, really could not have cared less who might or might not be coming to his “fantasy dinner”.

Yet instead of adopting typical teenage surly stares, gazing out of the windows or, worse, not even bothering to turn up, they are shouting out names. There’s a lively debate, even some laughs. And Derek, who until a few years ago was wearing an army corporal’s uniform and on patrol in the still tense cauldron of post-war Iraq, ploughs on, suggesting football players, actors, politicians, slotting names around the table drawn on the whiteboard as the teens throw back who they want, scrubbing those they don’t.

“It’s a good way to break the ice with the kids,” nods his colleague Paul Craig, 24, dressed in a similar crisp blue shirt, watching as Derek, a former PE instructor with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, encourages each pupil to join the debate.

Like Derek, Paul has no air of high school teacher. Indeed, he’s not that much older than the pupils in front of him, a former Hearts Under-19s squad footballer who at one point found himself on the verge of being booted out of high school for his own particular brand of wild, disruptive and unacceptable behaviour.

Now on the opposite side of the classroom, he works with the same ground-breaking organisation that helped him change his own increasingly noxious behaviour, battling to turn around the fortunes of other young people, from bleak and unpromising to one of hope.

And rarely have certain teenagers needed the unique blend of what educational charity SkillForce offers than they do now. April’s youth unemployment statistics made depressing reading: the number of young people in Scotland out of work and claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance for more than a year has increased by more than 1100 per cent in the last five years. More than 5000 Scots aged between 18 and 24 have been on the dole for longer than a year, around 300 of them in Edinburgh.

Overall, there are now 19 people – of all ages – on benefits for every job vacancy. Tough enough, then, for even studious and smart school-leavers to find work, training or to secure further education courses, a war-zone for those who, like Paul, loathe their lessons.

Someone has opened a window of the second-floor WHEC classroom and a welcome breeze is wafting through, causing the vertical blinds to rattle and adding to the already fairly relaxed atmosphere. Not that anyone is at risk of nodding off, not while there’s a dummy torso on the floor with 15-year-old Louise Falconer of Clovenstone Park, busy pounding its chest administering emergency resuscitation.

Today’s SkillForce lesson has switched from dinner table guest chat to a look at first aid skills. At some stage there may be talk about how to open a bank account or a challenge to rummage through a catalogue and furnish a flat for under £1000 – literacy and numeracy by stealth, grins Derek.

It’s quite a leap from pouring over history books, analysing Shakespeare or dissecting frogs. But, he adds, at the end of SkillForce, pupils who might otherwise not have even bothered to come to school, so disengaged are they with typical learning processes, pick up vital certificates and workplace experience to arm them for the fight for a job.

“This is a different way of learning,” says Derek, who left the army in 2008 after 14 years of service. “Instead of getting them to write things down or open books, we do things differently. We get them to read maps and learn the names of places, they do first aid. We take them bowling, it sounds like a day out but it’s good for building confidence and team work.

“Quite often we can see ourselves in these kids. Most of us were just like them. We use first name terms, we’re on their level. They get to trust us and in return we ask them to do their best for us.”

It’s a curve ball approach that has been remarkably successful. Since 2000 SkillForce has helped more than 44,000 young people throughout Britain pick up vocational certificates in the likes of first aid, health and safety and work experience, turning around truancy statistics on the way.

The charity also provides work for ex-forces personnel whose expertise in confrontation management, discipline and teamwork appears to translate perfectly into the classroom: SkillForce recently announced that 93 per cent of the pupils it worked with gained recognised qualifications to help them compete in the crowded jobs market.

It has also found respect among the education system. In December, Ann Ballinger, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, urged schools to look at the charity’s handling of disruptive pupils as an example for teachers struggling to help deal with rowdy classroom behaviour.

Ex-RAF gunner Rik Corrigan – who regularly takes classes at WHEC and Leith Academy – says the SkillForce approach strikes a chord with many disenchanted or under-achieving young people, possibly because they regard the instructors as people with experience of life at its most gritty and harsh.

“I understand where these kids are coming from,” says Rik, who left Dalkeith High School with a single woodwork O Grade. “I didn’t like school either. I only went because of my pals. Our approach is informal but there are rules, the kids know that I’m not playing with them. I tell them I’ve spent time in Niddrie, Pilton, Greendykes and then I joined the RAF. I’ve been places that probably their other teachers haven’t.

“We talk the same language. But we also say ‘Look I’m here to take you further but I’m not to be messed around with or not respected’. Eventually they respond and they look up to you.”

Paul, now in his second year working with SkillForce, points out he was probably worse than some of the pupils he works with today. “I was frustrated at school, a nightmare,” he explains. “I wanted to mess about. I wasn’t really bad or a bully, I just hated school. Eventually the school said either go to SkillForce or get kicked out.

“I thought it would be a waste of time. Then I realised I had a lot in common with the instructors. I felt that I’d be letting them down if I got into trouble.”

SkillForce currently works in more than 100 schools throughout Britain. Soon it will expand to operate at James Gillespie’s, Portobello, Gracemount and St Augustine’s.

Back at WHEC, Robert Cormack, 15, and Ryan Harlow, 16, both of Harvesters Way, recently received a string of SkillForce certificates in the likes of first aid, work experience and sports leadership.

“This is to help us make sure we can get a better chance of a job,” says Ryan, who has hopes of one day having his own business.

“It’s been quite good,” adds Robert, who prefers ‘hands-on’ subjects like motor vehicle skills to academic ones. “It’s taught us what to expect in a job interview, for example. People I know have been saying it’s hard out there to get a job.

“I want to be a mechanic,” he adds, “so coming here, learning a bit about first aid and health and safety... hopefully it’ll give us a better chance.”

Ryan nods. “You need to stand out from everyone else,” he agrees. “There’s not many jobs out there, but this has made me more confident about getting one.”

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SKILLFORCE is one of a number of initiatives aimed at helping teenagers leave school ready to join the fight for work.

City council chiefs last year announced the ‘Edinburgh Guarantee’, a pledge that all school leavers would arrive at a ‘positive destination’ – education, employment or training – through working with employers, the voluntary sector and further education.

Gillian Tee, Director for Children and Young People at Edinburgh city council, says there is a determination to improve prospects.

“We are already seeing results. In November 2010, there were 600 young people who did not go on to a positive destination in education, employment or training. We have reduced that to 300 already and are determined to go even better.

“In every secondary school, there is a deputy headteacher looking at the best options for every young person, whether that’s staying at school or making sure they are doing appropriate qualifications.

“There are regular meetings with college principals to make sure they are prioritising school leavers for courses, and this year there is a scheme for 50 young people doing apprenticeships with the council.”

Recently more than 200 young people from 20 Edinburgh schools completed the city council’s Job, Education and Training Programme (JET), a year-long work experience course for S4 pupils. JET provides weekly work placements at a major city employer, equipping students who may be at risk of leaving school with no firm prospects with vital life skills and experience.

Last year, 94.5 per cent of JET programme pupils left school and entered the workplace, training or further education.

Charity Barnardo’s Works project also supports 16-24 year olds in Edinburgh who are struggling to find work.