For a while, Connor Graham was dubbed the “most missing boy” in Scotland, a serial absconder from school, the care system and life in general, the troubled teenager most likely to be AWOL from class.

“I wanted to be left alone,” he recalls. “I was struggling at school and started to abscond from classes and from the foster place where I was staying.

“I was put in the base at school, just sitting there doing nothing. I used to think I’d probably end up like the other people in my life, using drugs and on my own.”

Now 19 years old, he is eyeing up new job with the potential of earning £35,000 a year. He’s gone from a miserable existence of being shunted from foster care to residential homes and a grim future, to public speaking, a team leader’s role in hospitality at a four-star hotel and with a fierce drive to succeed.

Often portrayed as fevered environments of high pressure, the domain of angry chefs at boiling point and relentless hard work, professional kitchens have not had the best of press in the past.

Yet it is in among the clattering of pots and pans, in front of searing hot ovens and brandishing razor-sharp knives, that young pupils with troubled backgrounds and at risk of slithering through the cracks, are being gently coaxed into carving better futures.

Edinburgh-based Scran Academy was launched almost five years ago by former Big Brother winner, John Loughton BEM, to help secondary school pupils at risk of leaving school with little or no qualifications.

Placed alongside trained chefs, cooks and supported by youth workers, pupils challenged by mental health issues, hunger, homelessness, family breakdown and school exclusion learn how to cook, chop and carve.

As their barriers fall, their confidence soars and a chance emerges to reignite their interest in learning: many go on to leave school with a clutch of SQA awards.

While the hospitality skills they learn could scarcely be more in demand: Scotland’s hospitality sector has warned for several months of the need to tackle what’s been described as the biggest recruitment crisis in living memory.

For the young people, there is also the satisfaction and sense of achievement that comes from delivering food to the table: last year, Scran Academy helped feed over 3,500 people from the ‘Scran Van’, a mobile catering van, at over 80 different events across the city.

Its Scran Café, a professional café within NHS Lothian’s Comely Bank Centre, was launched last year, giving young people the chance to make and serve food and drinks to healthcare staff.

And just announced are plans for the Big Scran Care Tour, a six-month tour of more than 100 health and social care sites around Edinburgh delivering free food to up to 4,500 workers as a ‘thank you’ for their work throughout the pandemic.

Even with the disruption caused by lockdown restrictions – when the social enterprise provided food for thousands of vulnerable people - almost 50 young people have gone on to further education, training or employment, picking up SQA qualifications that had looked unachievable, on the way.

According to chef and Scran Academy Catering Manager Will Bain, there is something about being in a kitchen, preparing food and the easy chat that accompanies it all, that nourishes young souls and soothes troubled minds.

“We give a young person a job that doesn’t need all of their attention, that they are interested in and engaged in. And when the hands are taken care of, their minds relax,” he says.

“They start talking. They put away their worries and whatever is happening at home or school or wherever, pick up a peeler or a knife or a wooden spoon instead.

“When you provide young people with a positive environment, rather than telling them ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘stop what you’re doing’, and instead just let them work things out by themselves, you see them start to change.”

Scran Academy was developed by John, 2008 winner of Channel 4 reality show Big Brother Celebrity Hijack.

Raised in ‘Trainspotting’ territory of North Edinburgh and with a troubled childhood of his own – in 2020, his brother was convicted of killing their other brother in a hammer attack – he says Scran Academy works by giving young people some control over their learning.

“I see a lot of amazing young people who are like me as a kid,” he says.

“They are desperate to learn and engage but their futures are undermined because they are living in families full of drugs; they’re not eating properly, they don’t get a decent meal, they don’t sleep properly.

“They end up being pushed to additional learning, the base or exclusion unit. They have a lack of trust in adults, they don’t believe in themselves because of what society has put on them.

“Often you see these kids staring at the wall in silence - that’s not how you wake up the hearts and minds of young people in school.”

Scran Academy sessions for pupils from 13 to 15, are built around breakfast and lunch, and focus on confidence building, skills, qualifications, and relationships.

Scransitions, for young people from 15 to 19, offers training and employability opportunities, help with interviews, CVs and job searches.

“Food is really important: the malnourishment and hunger in our schools is embarrassing,” John adds. “And there’s something about the power of food to convene people.

“Being at Scran is often the first time these young people have seen what it looks like to work and earn money. If you don’t know what that looks like, you grow up thinking benefits is all you are worth.

“Kids come in with no self-belief, they don’t love themselves and have every reason to hate themselves and give up.

“One girl arrived with just 22% attendance at school. That went up to 89%, she went on to sit exams and she is now a professional youth worker.”

It’s now hoped Scran Academy, which currently works with four Edinburgh secondary schools, will expand to other schools across the country.

A key aim, John adds, is to help tackle the gap in attainment levels: in December it emerged that the attainment gap between primary school pupils from the most and least deprived areas of Scotland appears to have widened during the Covid pandemic, with 80.7% of pupils in the most affluent areas at or above the expected standard, compared to 56% of those from the poorest backgrounds.

While in March last year, Audit Scotland said the proportion of school leavers achieving five or more awards at level five was 82.7% for pupils from the least deprived areas, compared to 46.5% for school leavers from the most deprived areas - a gap of 36.2%.

Connor, the ‘most missing boy in Scotland’ says before Scran Academy, his prospects were dramatically different.

“I had seven placements with carers in one year and was put in a residential unit,” he says. “At high school, I didn’t want to meet anyone. I wanted to be left alone, so I’d abscond.

“I was a scared little boy who didn’t want to communicate with anyone or do anything because I was too frightened.

“The confidence I have now is because of Scran Academy; it’s all about giving young people the right support.”