Drop outs who have tuned back in

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The Independent Online
SHERRI-ANN HARRIS, AGED 18

Sherri-ann was happy at her primary school in Worcestershire, but after her family moved to Birmingham, when she was 10, things started to go wrong. She was picked on by other pupils, and attended school less and less. She left with just a few low-grade GCSEs, but is now starting a vocational course in health and social care at Bournville College and hopes to become a counsellor.

"I was half way through a year when we moved and everyone was friends. Because I was overweight, nobody liked me. It was like one big family and I was just a stranger. So I stayed off, then the teachers didn't like me either because I didn't attend their lessons," she says.

Supported by her mother, who had had similar problems at school, she stayed at home more and more.

Even when a welfare worker persuaded Sherri-ann to go back she did not go often enough to take many GCSEs. "I was thrown out of English. I couldn't do Shakespeare because I didn't understand the language. Now I believe I could have done it. I know I could have got my GCSEs if I was given more support," she says.

ELISHA WILDMAN, AGED 18

Suffering from epilepsy is not usually considered a good reason for being excluded from school. But when the fits Elisha suffered from since birth got worse at her secondary school, her comprehensive told her parents it did not want her to return. "They were worried I would fall down the stairs and crack my head open."

Between the ages of 13 and 16, Elisha missed more than two years of schooling, and although she had home tuition, she fell behind. The school finally let her return, but only took four GCSEs. She says her teachers did everything to help her, but she still attained only low grades. "I didn't really mind what I got, as long as I managed to do them. I'd lost a lot of confidence in myself."

Now Elisha has completed Bournville's Certificate of Further Education course with flying colours - her tutor says her work would have gained A grades at GCSE - and is embarking on a Btec National Diploma in nursery nursing.

She says she has begun to feel more confident. "I was always told I wasn't a person until I left school. I just wanted to be treated as an equal."

FARHAN ALI, AGED 16

Farhan was placed in low sets for all his subjects at school, and left with only low-grade GCSEs. He believes that his school concentrated more on helping those students who had a chance of gaining five or more A-C grades than they did on helping those who had little chance of doing so.

Farhan is interested in working with computers, but rarely had the chance to use one at school - despite a national curriculum requirement that all children study information technology until they are 16.

"I was entered for the lower level GCSEs so I couldn't get A-C grades. Some of the lessons were good but a lot of the teachers would just help the brighter children.

"For example, the brighter ones would be allowed to do their coursework again if it wasn't very good, but because we could only get low grades we couldn't do that.

"Once I asked for more help, but the teacher said I wouldn't be able to get high grades anyway. He gave me some sheets. Once we had been entered for the lower tier they didn't really bother much with us."

NICK EMBLEY, AGED 18

Nick's college tutor says he is a natural leader and organiser. But things were not ever thus. At school in Birmingham, Nick was placed in a unit for pupils with special educational needs. Even now, he says, local teenagers who knew him at school still taunt him with the nickname, "Unit Boy".

At school he did not even manage to scrape a single grade G at GCSE but on a Certificate of Further Education course at Bournville College he easily attained the equivalent of four Cs. Now he plans to go on to a vocational course which will enable him to train as a printer.

Nick took science and art GCSEs at school but he failed them both.

"When I was doing the science exams the teacher told the head that I shouldn't do it because I couldn't cope," he said. "I just couldn't do it. But at college I did really well at science. I felt really proud of myself."

Nick believes that the different atmosphere at college helped him to build up confidence and to achieve more. Here, he says, he is treated like an adult, whereas, "at school they treated us like invalids and made us rebellious".

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