Going to college at 14? Damion's story

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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The Independent Online
School did not agree with Damion Oulter. "I remember eating loads of packets of crisps all day and watching Sesame Street," says the 17- year-old of the four years he spent off school for days, weeks and finally months at a time.

Missing lessons gradually became a way of life for Damion from the age of 10, when his parents separated and he moved in with his father. "It was a bit of hassle at home really that started me off,' he says. "I was getting headaches but no one believed me so I just started staying at home."

As his periods of truanting lengthened, the prospect of returning to school became more alarming. When he did go back, Damion suffered panic attacks. At the end of long, slow days at home - trapped indoors through fear of being seen by a teacher - he would spend evenings hanging out with friends and began trying what he now refers to as "illegal substances". "There was blow [cannabis] first, then acid."

It was counselling for drug misuse rather than pressure from teachers and social workers which finally set Damion, aged 14, on the road back to his studies, though not to school.

"They said nothing was wrong with me but told me to give up. I looked around me, at my old man, and realised I didn't want to end up living in a council flat and having a crap life," he says.

Damion began attending a pupil referral unit, which arranged for him to enrol at college to study for essential qualifications - maths and English GCSEs - as well as the course he had set his heart on: art. Spending three days a week at college under Bournemouth and Poole's Bridging the Gap programme for disaffected under-16s, he was swiftly moved from art GCSE at A-level, and earned a C-grade pass in just a year. He is now half- way through an art and design GNVQ course, and has set his sights on university.

Without the chance to switch to college, Damion believes, he would be back where he left off at 14 - slumped in front of the TV screen. "I liked college because they treated you like an adult and you could smoke or even swear without a teacher slapping you round the ear hole. I was a bit scared at first, particularly when I went round an art exhibition on my first day and thought all the work was better than mine, but gradually I got used to it and now I have quite a few friends here."

Under the Bridging the Gap scheme, under-16s were given extra tutorial support to help them settle in and deal with problems, but attended classes with older students and adults. Damion believes the experience suited him. "I think I am quite mature, which is partly why I got bored at school. You need to be mature to benefit from going to college early."