Headteacher builds construction pathway

A secondary school headteacher has created a skilled work experience subject as part of the curriculum in his West Calder High School.

 Greg McDowall began the Skilled2Work programme three months ago, having ran it for six months in a previous school. He said that exclusion rates are already down and pupil engagement levels are up.

Students at the school who are taking part in the programme recently helped refurbish Polbeth Community hall. The school said the pupils will now be able to use the experience to gain SQA vocational qualifications.

Greg explained that he aims the programme at pupils who do not have a direct route into a trade through a family business, or who have fallen out of touch with school. One success story is of a child who had not attended school for many months, only to find his calling through work within a trade – this led to an improved attendance rate, the achievement of grades in core subjects such as maths and English and a willingness to continue on to fifth year while working towards a career in a trade.

Greg said, “At school we can educate children on communication, self-esteem, motivation; we can do that with them, but sometimes what we lack is giving them the real, hard industry skills that they require and that’s the tough part.

“So, it’s about looking at what’s going to make them really appealing to a potential employer, particularly given the high number of applications for apprenticeships. For some children their take-away from it are qualifications and the ability to paint and decorate, for example.”

Greg insists that Skilled2Work is in the early stages. A wake-up call for him was when one of the pupils excitedly flicked through their report card, only to disappointedly ask where the feedback from the construction firm they had worked with was. 

Greg admits that he was left feeling gutted and immediately knew he had made a mistake not including the programme as an actual subject within the curriculum. 

The pupil in question, Greg said, was not doing well academically but was “absolutely excelling” in the work within the trade he was gaining experience in. He now has no problem having the programme stand alongside more traditional subjects. He said, “For me, I look at the needs of the children and I make the curriculum fit them. So, my philosophy and the colleague I’m working with is, we know what the children need and what is going to motivate them.

“The pupils involved are more engaged. They understand the relevance of school; school is now a  relevant thing to them as we treat those programmes with the same value as we treat our highers and national qualifications. The children know that they are valued by their school and community.”

The youngsters are currently working on their local community centre and Greg said they are now looking into doing work at a public garden. He added that the local community has been full of praise for the work, with one local company even donating overalls, boots and painting equipment to the school.

The plan now for West Calder High School is to continue to allow the Skilled2Work programme to grow. Greg said that there is limited capacity in the school curriculum to allow schools to prepare young people for a trade apprenticeship, and that they must ensure that it is a pathway which is valued.