Education: Tune-up for job hopes: Sarah Strickland reports on a self-help club for pupils in danger of dropping out

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The Independent Online
It is an icy day in Leicester but several pupils from Crown Hills Community College are out grappling with the nuts on the wheel of their teacher's car. Others are leaning over the engine.

Jean Fletcher, their teacher, is standing by, hoping she will be able to drive home safely afterwards. Thirteen pupils are refreshing their memories of the previous Saturday, when their eight-week motor project reached its climax, finally allowing them to get behind the wheel and under the bonnet. The less hardy are sheltering indoors, gathered in a knot of hysteria around the video they made of their first attempts at driving.

Crown Hills is one of 45 schools with a Compact Plus club. Compact was an initiative introduced by the Government in 1988 to improve motivation among pupils, mainly in inner-city schools. Schools work with employers to set pupils targets, such as punctuality and good conduct, and those who achieve their targets have a better chance of training for a job. Compact Plus clubs were piloted four years ago and are 'self-help' groups for pupils likely to fail to reach Compact goals.

Peter Newman, national director of Compact Plus, says the pupils selected are typically 'unmotivated and in danger of dropping out' - the sort who once left school without any qualifications, but managed because there were enough jobs around. 'Now they realise that it is probably better to get something out of school rather than nothing.'

Typically, a club has 15 fourth- year members, meeting for at least two hours a week. The ethos of the club is that it belongs to the pupils and that they are responsible for what goes on. 'No one is in authority over them and they find that intriguing,' Mr Newman says. An adviser, often someone who is not a teacher in the school, is there to help and make suggestions, but pupils organise themselves.

They arrange outings, fund- raising events and visiting speakers, and practise writing CVs and performing in job interviews. The clubs aim to boost confidence, improve communication and leadership skills and encourage pupils to stay until the end of the year and sit their exams. The overall aim is to improve their chances of finding a job.

Alison Layton, in charge of Compact at Crown Hills, is delighted with the change in her members. 'A lot of these students are not recognised in school - they are the ones who are too shy to put themselves forward. Now, not only can they speak up for themselves, they can go away and gradually take on responsibility.'

Manpreet Rai, who is chair of the club, certainly feels she has benefited. 'I was really shy before, I hated speaking to the teachers, but I'm really confident now.' Sunita Kumani enjoys having a different kind of relationship with a teacher. 'You can talk freely and they treat you more like adults.'

The motor project has been a huge hit - especially the last part, in which they all had a taste of driving. The afternoon ends with a tour of Cox's Motors, a local garage that has run the 'First Gear' course in conjunction with the Leicester Action for Youth Trust. Club members also receive discounts on driving lessons.

Compact Plus is based on a successful American programme which has achieved unemployment rates nearly one-third lower than those for non-participants. Detailed follow-ups of British students have not been carried out yet. 'No one pretends that it will transform all the students,' Mr Newman says. 'But there is evidence that some will attend the club regularly, if not other parts of the curriculum - and that's better than nothing at all.'

(Photograph omitted)