Education: When fitting exhaust pipes beats German and physics

It's every parent's nightmare: your child is bunking off school or disrupting class. Can a new government scheme succeed in motivating these youngsters?
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The Independent Online
Philip Stroud, now aged 15, spent a year or more "bunking off" school for at least three days a week. Now he spends three days a week in a car workshop - as part of a project for young people who are thought to be at risk of dropping out of school.

Philip, who is a pupil at Danetre school in Daventry, Northamptonshire, says: "I didn't like school. It was a bit rubbish. Teachers took so long to tell you something. They'd give you a whole long lecture about something boring.

"We used to hang around town. It was boring, but better than school."

As any parent will tell you, pretty well all teenagers are "disaffected". However, most middle-class parents manage to keep their children at school and motivate them with the idea that they have reasonable prospects of academic success.

The Government is worried about less academically minded teenagers who are already disillusioned by the time they reach secondary school, and are turned off by a traditional diet of subjects such as German and physics.

This week, the Government announced the latest in a series of measures to cut truancy; these include plans for teachers to act as social workers throughout the country, and pounds 10,000 for any school with good ideas about how to keep pupils within the system. Already, it is encouraging schemes for pupils such as Philip to spend time learning skills outside school.

This term Philip has started tyre-fitting and exhaust-fitting and hopes to get a vocational qualification within eight months. "It means that I can get a job when I'm older, instead of doing exams and stuff," he says. Two days a week, he attends school.

Philip is on the Cool project, part of the Government's NewStart scheme, to get truanting, excluded and disruptive teenagers back into learning. Ministers are allowing schools to exempt 14-to-16-year-olds from the national curriculum if they believe that more practical training would motivate them. Soon the project will offer training in bricklaying and painting and decorating, as well as car mechanics.

Three weeks ago Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, said that some pupils would be better off learning to be plumbers than doing academic subjects.

But the attitude of some of the newly arrived students on the Cool project suggests that motivating disenchanted teenagers may be an uphill task.

Next to the car workshop, a group of 15-year-olds are painting a mural of self-portraits. Do you like school? "No," replies one, who says, however, that he did not play truant. Do you like painting? "No." Are you good at it? "No." What do you want to do when you leave school? "Dunno."

The point of the painting project, say organisers, is that the starting- point must be improving pupils' self-esteem.

Kelly Wellman, aged 15, attends the project for one day a week. "Teachers don't like me because I have a bad past," she says. "There's one who picks on me all the time. I used to turn up at school but I didn't do any more than that. This is better because you get your freedom back."

The project, which has been running since 1997, is jointly funded by the Government, Daventry District Council, and the Northamptonshire Chamber of Commerce.

Roger Moseley, the training co-ordinator, says that half of the 20 or so 15-year-olds who attended are now behaving better at school and three out of five hardened truants have gone back to their studies. "Those who are not attending school are still coming here."

Malcolm Wicks, the schools minister, who visited the project at the end of last month, contends: "School doesn't suit everybody. Some people would rather be out there doing something and if they can learn while they are doing it then so much the better."

The project is not simply about picking up truants but also helping those who kick against an education system that fails to motivate them. Linda Brooks, Danetre's deputy head, says that the school is working with the project-leaders to become aware of potential truants before they start skipping school.

"The national curriculum is appropriate for the vast majority of youngsters, but the Government is right to say that work-related learning will reap benefits for the rest," she says. "We have to accept that informal learning is as valuable as formal learning."