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Business rescues the boys who fail

Even no-hopers have a chance of success under new public-private partnerships. Robert Nurden reports
Six months ago, Marc used to scream and shout and lose his temper whenever anything went wrong at school. It had happened so often that his parents and teachers at Brampton secondary school in London's East End were ready to give up on the bright, yet under-achieving 15-year-old. It was no surprise when he was finally excluded from school.

Like so many disaffected and seemingly unemployable teenage boys before him, he could then have disappeared from mainstream education altogether, to reappear in the national statistics - as a criminal. Some 40 per cent of robberies are committed by 12- to 16-year-olds and 5 per cent are committed by children in school time. It's a story all too common in today's inner- city comprehensives as police, educationalists, youth workers, employers and the Government's social exclusion unit know only too well. The number of pupils permanently excluded from school for disruptive behaviour and repeated truancy has been rising steadily. Nationally there were 13,500 in 1996-97, up from 11,100 in 1994-95. More than 100,000 are temporarily excluded.

But, paradoxically, Marc was thrown a lifeline because of his exclusion. While attending school on a part-time basis, he joined the Revitalise project, in which disaffected pupils - all but one of the 54 is male- get vocational training under the auspices of Newham's youth and community service. The project has multi-agency backing from local groups such as Newham Education Business Partnership and the London East Training and Enterprise Council.

For a few hours each weekday, Marc learnt the rudiments of bricklaying, music and information technology, motorcycle maintenance and arts and crafts. Meanwhile, a liaison officer between school and programme helped to re-integrate Marc into full-time education and provided an essential sense of continuity.

"I am doing better in class and enjoy the work," said Marc, now back at school full-time. "The work I did at Revitalise was more relevant than a lot of the National Curriculum. It has helped me prepare for getting a job."

The parts played by Tate & Lyle, Mowlem the builders and the Docklands motorcycle project have been vital to the project's success. "Who, on the face of it, is going to give work to kids with a history like that?" asked Michael Grier of Tate & Lyle, one of the biggest employers in the London borough of Newham. "Yet if you look a little deeper, you can see there are a range of behavioural, social and family factors contributing to the problem. As a local business, we want a thriving community around us and we feel we can contribute something towards achieving that."

Tate & Lyle lent its in-house photographer to the project in the start- up phase and, in a less direct way, its mentoring and literacy projects, mock interview training, help with filling in application forms, visits to its Beckton filtration plant and book donations to Newham schools are having a beneficial, long-term effect on educational standards in the borough.

Mowlem, meanwhile, provided an instructor at its national training centre in Beckton to teach the boys bricklaying. "Every one of the lads who has passed through Revitalise has found the vocational element of the course useful," said project leader Trevor Blackman. "It has enabled some to work towards getting General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs). As all the staff have a youth and community-work background it means we can bring a more caring, one-to-one approach to the youngsters' problems. What we have managed to create is an unusual balance between relevant work experience and personal care and attention."

For many youngsters, the more academic parts of the National Curriculum are irrelevant, say experts. The curriculum is so tightly scheduled that teachers have little time to shape their lessons to the needs of particular students. Invariably, less academic pupils miss out. Part of the reason for the rise in the number of exclusions is schools' desire to improve their showing in performance league tables: get rid of a disruptive, under-achieving pupil and he won't show up as an exam failure and other pupils won't be distracted.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair, through the social exclusion unit at the Cabinet Office, is encouraging communities to "tackle disaffection with more imaginative approaches to the curriculum". One way of doing that is to get companies, as in Revitalise, more involved in the educational process. Increasing the vocational element and making the learning process more exciting is something firms can easily take on. For example, Boots, Adidas and McDonald's have already instituted a scheme at schools in Sheffield which rewards good behaviour and achievement. The Coca-Cola challenge, which encourages interest in school work, has been piloted by the Birmingham Local Education Authority. BT has invested in developing networks and systems to support schools in internet access.

Companies can also can act as mentors for students who get turned off by the rigid National Curriculum. In Birmingham, for instance, the Kwesi mentoring support scheme, which draws in people from the local business community, has helped to reduce exclusion rates by a massive 23 per cent. Such initiatives by businesses could be seen as a cheap way of wooing the local workforce. But if these links - links that have proved essential to the success of Revitalise - give students a real taste of the world of work and welcome relief from what to them is unmitigated classroom boredom, then they surely have an important role to play.