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‘I’d be in a very dark place without these folk’ – Pioneering Wick youth project picks up national award

Youth workers (from left) Benjamin Douglas, Caitlin Risbridger and Carly Simpson, and headmaster Sebastian Sandecki, with Wick High School pupils. Photo: Robert MacDonald/Northern Studios
Youth workers (from left) Benjamin Douglas, Caitlin Risbridger and Carly Simpson, and headmaster Sebastian Sandecki, with Wick High School pupils. Photo: Robert MacDonald/Northern Studios

What started as an “honest question” to pupils has taken off in ways Wick High School could never have imagined.

Step Forward Wick Youth is now enjoying national recognition as a youth project like no other.

The project has won YouthLink Scotland‘s Recognising Skills and Achievement Award. As the only finalist in Highland, the school says it was a “pinch me moment”.

Yet its the latest in a string of successes and impressive statistics. The youth group features in the Scottish Government’s 100 stories of lockdown anthology – handpicked for achieving a massive 90% engagement rate with its group in lockdown.

And at just four years old, the group has already made strides in narrowing the attainment gap. Many of the pupils involved are tackling personal challenges – caring responsibilities, anxiety, bullying.

They have now found a safe haven in school. Some plan to pay it forward and return as youth workers themselves.

The P&J paid a visit to find out just what gives this group its magic.

Stop blaming teenagers

Today, Step Forward Wick Youth has a packed itinerary of after-school clubs, specialist classes, support sessions and community projects.

Yet it all started with a problem. In 2018, Wick was suffering at the hands of a small but determined group of vandals. They trashed the swing parks, smashed the public toilets and even set fire to park benches. Soon, comments started to appear on social media. Many of them pointed the finger squarely – if vaguely – at ‘the youth of today’.

This time, the youth answered back. Youth worker Carly Simpson recalls:

“Step Forward Wick Youth started in 2018 with a pupil consultation, because we were aware that something needed to happen – a partnership between our local community and our young people,” she says.

“There was a lot of vandalism and kids not having anything to do. We asked really honest questions of our young people and the feedback was that they wanted somewhere safe to go, they wanted more activities, they wanted people to listen to them.”

The youth group evolves to meet pupils’ changing needs. Photo: Robert MacDonald/Northern Studios

With that in mind, the school invited local councillors, police, NHS representatives, leisure groups and community leaders to meet with young people and hear from them directly.

The pupils put together a video tour of the town, highlighting areas of dilapidation and the lack of youth facilities.

One of the memorable moments from the event was an S1 pupil telling the crowd: “We’re not gathered in corners with our hoods up to be intimidating. We’re doing it because we’re cold and we don’t feel safe – and we have nowhere else to go.”

The challenge: how can we work together to make things better?

Led by what young people need

In the months that followed, the group got to work. Local businesses got involved, offering meal deals to pupils who previously felt they weren’t welcome to hang out in their café or shop.

For their part, the pupils painted a colourful mural on a vandalised building at the river. It was the first of many similar community projects.

Finding a safe space to meet outside of school was a tougher challenge. The group looked at various buildings in the town, but couldn’t find anywhere affordable and suitable.

In the end, they decided to use their own school building to host a range of after-school clubs. These proved a huge hit.

Step Forward Wick Youth celebrating their third birthday.

On Monday nights, up to 20 kids attend Chop It Like It’s Hot cooking class. The school was surprised when the pupils showed no interest in making burgers and chips, but instead learned to make soup and mince and tatties.

Other classes include board game night (we’re told Uno is fiercely competitive), dance class, art class and basketball.

“We have activities every day after school,” says youth worker Caitlin Risbridger. “It’s about life skills. It gets different year groups mixing and they make new friends through this. We try to keep it going through summer too, with a few trips away in the holidays.”

A Covid-shaped spanner in the works

Unfortunately, just as the group was gathering pace, the pandemic hit. Suddenly, a group of pupils who had found their ‘safe space’ in school could no longer access it.

But the youth leaders were undeterred. “Obviously the school has a duty of care to ensure our pupils are still okay, and in the first lockdown, that was us,” says youth worker Benjamin Douglas.

“We put everything online, continued with our one-to-one sessions, held group video calls as needed. Really it was throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”

It turns out, a lot stuck. During lockdown, the group kept in close contact with 90% of its pupils.

The pupils say it was a really tough time, and they couldn’t wait to get back to Step Forward Wick Youth.

When they did return, their needs had changed. “Since Covid we’ve had to take a different approach,” says Carly. “We’re really concentrating on delivering awards, and doing one-to-one support work, because there’s a lot of recovery to be had after the last couple of years.”

‘I was getting badly bullied but I felt safe here’

The awards programme is squarely focused on life skills. The school runs a Wider Achievement class (which last year got a 100% pass rate) and is looking to extend that to include a Wellbeing class.

Pupils can also work towards Employability Awards, which cover interview skills, job application forms and personal development.

Then there’s project work through the Prince’s Trust and Dynamic Youth, all of it built around pupils’ natural strengths and interests. So far, they’ve done personal projects in everything from baking to anime.

“This is a different platform than your usual SQA qualifications,” says Carly. “We try to offer a wider curriculum. That’s a necessity because we have some young people who are perhaps not achieving in their mainstream classes. They come to a youth work setting and tap into their potential.”

Fifth year pupil Ben Bremner joined Step Forward Wick Youth in S1, after a tough start at school. “I was getting badly bullied but I felt safe here,” he says. “I enjoy coming here all the time. There’s a nice, happy atmosphere.”

S5 pupil Ben Bremner turned to the youth group after being bullied. Photo: Robert MacDonald/Northern Studios

One-to-one support sessions helped Ben to focus on his emotional wellbeing and find ways to move forward. He now has two periods a week of mainstream curriculum, but has excelled in non-traditional classes. He volunteers as a coach with High Life Highland’s Active Schools programme, teaching a range of sports to primary school pupils.

“I absolutely love it,” he says. “It’s a nice atmosphere and a challenge. I see the staff here doing it so well and I figure if I can copy them I’ll be fine.”

Closing the gap

For pupils like Ben, Step Forward Wick Youth has made learning feel relevant.

The data speaks for itself.

Carly’s post is funded through the Scottish Attainment Challenge, which aims to close the poverty-related attainment gap. The youth group has reached an impressive 70% of the SAC cohort, with the vast majority going on to further education or employment. Almost half are working towards the wider achievement awards.

The school’s main aim was to halve the attendance gap between vulnerable pupils and the rest of its learners from 6% to 3%. This term, it’s just 1.19%.

L-R Head teacher Sebastian Sandecki and youth workers Carly Simpson and Caitlin Risbridger receive a YouthLink Scotland Award on behalf of Wick High School.

Winning a YouthLink Scotland Award was the icing on the cake, and head teacher Sebastian Sandecki was thrilled to see their efforts celebrated at a national level.

“This success is down to the skills of youth work practitioners, building supportive relationships with pupils, and designing learning opportunities alongside young people,” he said.

“What I find the most important fact is that they are making a real difference for our pupils. This approach to learning is vital, as some of our young people are now excelling through youth work. They are developing relevant skills and achieving a number of SCQF credits.”

Feeling positive about the future

One such pupil is S5 student Daniel Gunn. Daniel has been a regular since 2018 and particularly enjoys Chop It Like It’s Hot and games night.

Daniel Gunn hopes to be a youth worker when he leaves school. Photo: Robert MacDonald/Northern Studios

Cooking was the focus of Daniel’s project for the Wider Achievement award, something he’s found really worthwhile. “Coming here has definitely made a difference,” he says.

So much so, that when asked what he wants to do when he leaves school, Daniel answers: “Probably be a youth worker like Carly, Benny and Caitlin. It’s hands-on, not stuck behind a desk.”

Talking to the pupils, you get a sense that this group has brought them out of their shell.

Eilidh McPhee agrees. “I have anxiety issues,” she says. “I really struggled in S1 and S2 but coming here has boosted my confidence and made me feel comfortable.”

Now in S5, Eilidh hopes to pursue a career in care when she leaves school. She already has some experience looking after her older brother, who is blind and uses a wheelchair. “I talk to him and keep him company,” she says.

‘I’d be in a very dark place without these folk’

S5 pupil Eilidh McPhee. Photo: Robert MacDonald/Northern Studios

Eilidh lives in the remote village of Lybster. She joined Step Forward Wick Youth because there was “absolutely nothing to do, and it got me out of the house”.

The school bus from Lybster gets in early, so Eilidh comes to the youth base to hang out before registration. “I come in here straight off the bus,” she says. “It’s a nice relaxing start to the day.”

Ben sums it up beautifully.

“For kids who struggle, it’s a place to go,” he says. “I can’t even put into words how much it’s helped me. I’d be in a very dark place without these folk.”

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