Going to college at 14?

Thousands of children are disaffected - fed up with their schools and teachers. For some, the answer may be an early start to college. Lucy Ward reports
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Standing in a run-down and vandalised south London housing estate earlier this month, Tony Blair pledged to bring back the "will to win" for people forgotten under 18 years of Conservative government. Among the victims, the new Prime Minister said, were the homeless, the jobless and some100,000 children not attending school through either truancy or exclusion.

While the new government sets about fulfilling its grand promises, small projects are already leading the way in showing how those excluded from the rest of society can be brought back on board. Among the schemes tackling disaffection among the young, Labour noted even before its election victory the success of one approach being tried not by schools but by further education colleges.

Though their prime remit, and funding, involves serving sixth-form age students and adults, colleges experimenting with programmes aimed at under- 16s are achieving increasing success. Working in collaboration with schools or pupil referral units - council-run teaching centres for excluded pupils - they are enrolling pupils for a day, or even a half-day, a week on programmes such as car maintenance, catering or beauty therapy.

The schemes are relatively small and still in their early days, but schools and colleges involved are already convinced of their benefits and seeking to extend them. Pupils truanting or in danger of dropping out of education entirely have proved willing to attend school more regularly once inspired by a part-time hairdressing or IT course at their local college. Others less at risk but disenchanted with academic study have been persuaded to stay on in education after 16, thanks to a taster course tried at a crucial moment in their school career.

Bournemouth and Poole College is among those leading the way in running courses for youngsters who, by 14 or 15, have already dropped out of the school system. The college's Bridging the Gap programme, now in its second year, offers 12 part-time places to pupils attending local referral units, funded by Poole and Bournemouth local education authorities.

In terms of qualifications, the goals are modest - the college aims to get each student through a National Vocational Qualification in their chosen subject at level one. More broadly, the programme is designed to give students the maximum support to encourage them to stay the course.

"We are about giving these youngsters another chance so that they don't believe the doors are permanently closed," says programme coordinator Rebecca Fahy. "For a lot of them, school didn't work - not necessarily because the school was at fault but because it wasn't appropriate."

Colleges can appeal even to truants, organisers of such programmes agree, because of the promise of an "adult" environment and the option of vocational courses. "They can have a fag here without getting excluded and then go back to a practical course they are really motivated by," Mrs Fahy says.

Bridging the Gap youngsters are deliberately mingled in course groups with older students, despite age differences. They go mainly into pre- vocational programmes where other students may have moderate learning difficulties, often offering the young drop-outs a first chance to experience the satisfaction and responsibility of being at the top of the class.

Of last year's group, which contained school refusers as well as excluded pupils, almost all have stayed in education or moved into employment. This year has been a tougher challenge, but a majority have stayed the course.

At Wirral College, up to 300 under-16s are attending at any one time, mainly on taster courses in vocational subjects. The college tailor-makes programmes in response to requests from schools hoping to reinspire demotivated pupils or for individual youngsters who have already been excluded.

A special handbook is produced for the pre-16s to help them adapt to the new environment, and monitoring of attendance is especially rigorous to pick up on potential drop-outs at an early stage. "If you are going to go down this road you have to modify some of your procedures to suit the age group," says head of student services Maureen Hanley. "But for the students, it's crucial that they feel they fit in with the rest and can go down to the snooker room at break and have a game."

Though many college programmes for under-16s are aimed at picking up the pieces after schools have run out of patience, ideas or resources, others are more about helping schools raise achievement. At the massive Clarendon College in Nottingham, with 34,000 students on roll, over 2,000 pupils in around 40 local schools take part in activities ranging from workshops giving a taste of courses available post-16 to half-day a week programmes leading to full or part General National Vocational Qualifications.

It was Clarendon's work with two other colleges and two city comprehensives, allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to take NVQ units in catering, hairdressing and IT during a half-day a week at college, which caught the attention of education secretary David Blunkett last year. The project was cited as an exemplar in a Labour paper on 14-19 education, and Sir Ron Dearing's report on 16-19 qualifications also recommended school pupils be offered a taste of college life.

"Highly motivated pupils can benefit just as much as the disaffected from the challenge of gaining practical skills,' argues Clarendon schools liaison officer Rosie Salisbury, a seconded deputy head. "Our main aim is to raise achievement across the county and encourage more pupils to stay on after 16."

The city of Nottingham, where staying-on rates of just over 50 per cent are among the lowest in the country and over 20 per cent below the national average, has plenty of scope for improvement. Clarendon denies its outreach is designed simply to ensure a steady flow of 16-year-old students through its own doors. "Our aim is to give young people what we hope will be an inspiring taste of a college environment and encourage them to stay in education, wherever they choose to go," Mrs Salisbury says.

Colleges hope that, in the light of former FE lecturer Mr Blunkett's enthusiasm, their pioneering schemes may be placed on a more formal national footing. The concept would be no threat to schools, they insist, but could play its part in stemming the tide of drop-outs lamented by Tony Blair.