With the threat of the council closing – or not closing – schools in the headlines for longer than anyone can recall, the Shetland Learning Partnership has been an often overlooked plan to offer vocational skills to pupils before they get to the stage of throwing away their jotters.
Now, an education official who has overseen its development has spoken about the far reaching changes, which will see “virtual academies” operating from next summer.
The academies have been developed with the aim of offering pupils an “irresistible CV” as they enter the senior phase of their secondary education, and should give youngsters the chance to take charge of their careers from an early age.
Developed as a pilot partnership between the high schools, the college and NAFC, the virtual academies will give some S5 pupils the chance to study a two-year college-based national certificate course, with an associated SVQ.
Engineering will be offered in partnership with the NAFC, while Shetland College will offer assistance to pupils seeking to learn more about health and social care.
A maximum of 16 places will be available at both the learning academies.
Youngsters will also be mentored and offered “work-place tasters” and paid summer jobs. The idea is being supported by a number of businesses in the isles.
The changes are expected to be heralded in next summer, when a pilot course for some S4 pupils may also be trialled.
Project manager, Sandra Laurenson, said the partnership – aimed at implementing some of the recommendations agreed by the council in response to its strategy for secondary education report agreed last November – would open up new possibilities for school pupils.
“I always summarise the Shetland Learning Partnership by saying what we want to be able to do is offer young folk an irresistible CV.
“From this coming summer, some pupils starting secondary five will have the option of undertaking a national certificate and associated SVQs, instead of two other subjects.
“Whilst they’re undertaking their course, we’re also going to make sure they have work placements. Some of that will be taster sessions, and some of that will be paid summer jobs. There are a range of local employers who have agreed to participate in this project.”
She said offering work experience that was paid would give youngsters a sense of responsibility “as an employee”.
It is hoped the partnership will offer new avenues to youngsters whose minds are perhaps not set on university courses. It could also act as a way of ensuring more young people stay within the isles.
“For me, it’s about opening as many doors as we can for young folk, so that whether their next destination is work, or further education, or higher education, we have equipped them well,” added Ms Laurenson.
But while the initiative may seem groundbreaking, she said the approach was widely adopted nationally. It should also develop on an existing skills for work programme which has been offered to S3 and S4 pupils, which sees youngsters spending one day a fortnight gaining specific skills. That has allowed pupils the chance to see for themselves exactly what courses may be available for them later on.
Ms Laurenson said a whole host of groundwork has already been done to allow the courses to be factored in – not an easy task when the timetables of both schools and colleges have to be played around with. Staff, said Ms Laurenson, had been hugely supportive.
“An enormous amount of back office work has had to happen so that these courses can be timetabled to fit in with other subjects in the school and also without hugely disrupting the colleges.
“There has been a lot of work to get to this stage. But the reason we’ve got to this stage is because people have worked willingly and co-operatively to try and make this happen. This is not my project. I’m just a project manager. It’s the head teachers and the college staff, the college principals, who have made this happen.”
She said staff were “quite cautious” about their approach, simply because, she said, the partnership offers no margin for error.
“We’ve got to where we are through quite a lot of good-will. But we’re being quite cautious about how we approach this. We’re piloting things and monitoring it very closely, because we can’t afford to get this wrong – even once.
“It’s been developed carefully to make sure it’s a good experience for the pupils. It was early this year that the learning partnership really kicked off. We were always aiming for the learning academies to be on stream in 2015. So we are on stream about where we hope to be.”