Alness Academy pupils reaping the benefits of Scottish Rugby Cashback scheme delivered by Ross Sutherland
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A secondary school rugby programme is helping to improve pupils' attendance and behaviour in classes.
The Scottish Government's Cashback for Communities initiative sees a seven-figure sum invested into schools, with Cashback schools of rugby targeting individuals who are at risk of exclusion or getting involved in anti-social behaviour.
Alness Academy is the only such school in the Highlands, with Ross Sutherland Rugby Club helping to deliver the programme through project officer Michael McClenaghan.
With over 50 youngsters currently benefitting from the scheme, sessions range from introducing them to rugby to sharpening both sporting and leadership skills – all while helping older pupils towards levels four and five qualifications in partnership with Borders' College.
"I approach those pupils and have a conversation with them with the head teacher and one of the PE teachers about how it could be a really good opportunity for them to get to a positive destination – especially if they're a senior phase pupil who is looking at an apprenticeship or something like that," Mr McClenaghan explained.
"Things like goal-setting and communication helps with employment opportunities, and there's a definite difference in some of the kids' attitudes towards education and how they behave around the school.
"There are certain targets they've got to stick to to stay in the programme. They must have a minimum attendance at school – before now, some of those kids might only have had 50 per cent attendance.
"In school there has been a big change in how some of them have acted from primary seven to S1, a few of them have really improved academically because of it.
"I think they see this as a privilege, which is what it is. When they start abusing that privilege and don't meet the targets, they have seen kids who didn't necessarily need to be in the programme get removed when they started abusing the programme.
"For the kids who do need to be there, they see that they have to keep doing well in school if they want to keep playing rugby."
As well as helping the children's behaviour and attainment within school, the Cashback programme is also helping them become active members of their community.
Encouraging the older pupils especially to take on leadership roles, some have began to get involved in organising youth rugby festivals and tournaments, and joined Ross Sutherland outwith school.
Alness Academy PE teacher Ian MacIver said: "The scheme has had positive effects – it has increased student engagement, fostering a sense of teamwork and discipline.
"This initiative has not only provided an avenue for physical activity but has also acted as a catalyst for connecting pupils to local rugby clubs, creating links with the broader community and with our associated primary schools.
"One of the main things that I’ve noticed is the standard of performance – there has been a discernible rise in the overall performance standards.
"This progression has allowed pupils to engage with local clubs, and some senior pupils are now involved in organising festivals and engaging with primary pupils which again is contributing to their local community.
"The programme was initially designed for pupils that have behavioural needs and threat of exclusion, however the programme has engaged all learners in the school and has allowed the pupils from a variety of backgrounds to interact – something they may not have done previously.
"The Scottish Rugby Cashback programme has proven its worth in fostering positive outcomes within the school and local community.
"I would love to see the programme continue after this three-year funding cycle, and hopefully we can try to work with our partners and stakeholders to continue the programme after that."
The programme can be mutually beneficial too. As well as helping school statistics with attainment and helping young people reach their potential, added numbers and greater competition in Ross Sutherland's youth set-up is a nice bonus.
"A good number of the kids over the years have joined Ross Sutherland as well because of the programme," Mr McClenaghan added.
"It's great for us, and the rugby club counts as their first positive destination as well. At the club they can speak to senior players about employment or apprenticeship opportunities.
"It's always going to sound cheesy, but when you actually look at what we're doing in Alness, it's looking after these kids in a way they maybe don't get anywhere else outside of school.
"They're not getting the same support as they do in school, so it's a case of us looking out for these kids and making sure they are set when they move on from school."