John Pout is a man in a hurry. Two years ago he became a secondary headteacher at the age of 35, and now he's running ahead of the pack again: at his school, Westleigh high in Wigan, he's introduced GNVQ and NVQ subjects at key stage 4, anticipating the shift to vocational GCSEs announced in the Green Paper last week. He's done it by exempting - or, to use the jargon, "disapplying" - 70 per cent of his GCSE students from two national curriculum subjects.
He recalls the incredulity of a Department for Education adviser when he told him about the school's plan. "He asked, 'Are you sure it's 70 per cent and not 7 per cent?' And he wanted to know if the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority knew about it. When I rang the QCA, their response was the same, asking if the department knew about it."
So is John Pout a visionary or an educational vandal? He argues that the students at Westleigh high need all the help they can get. Nearly 70 per cent have a reading age significantly below their chronological age when they arrive at the school; nearly half have special needs; and 85 per cent of families live just above the poverty line. Only 18 per cent of students achieved five A to C grades at GCSE last year, and even those considered to be university material say they want to be car mechanics and hairdressers. This in an area that once teemed with textile mills and coal mines, but now is overrun with superstores and DIY shops.
The children certainly need help. But is mass disapplication the way to do it? John Pout has no doubts. All children still do seven GCSEs, but disapplication from modern foreign languages and, ironically for a technology college, design and technology, has freed up 20 per cent of curriculum time which is now vocationally oriented.
"If the assumption is that vocational education is inferior to academic studies, then you could say that we're settling for lower expectations of our students," says Mr Pout. "But I believe we're giving children the opportunity to succeed by offering them courses that they're interested in and can excel in.
"Because they enjoy these courses and do well in them, their confidence and self-esteem is raised and their attendance improves greatly. We've given them something to be proud of."
Two boys who had been staying away from school are now coming in 60 per cent of the time, he says, and their appearances always coincide with catering and building classes.
Westleigh high has had the option of mass disapplication because it is a member of an education action zone (Leigh); finance for facilities and resources comes from its technology college status and government schemes such as New Deal andBasic Need, plus private donations.
The school offers NVQs in catering and hospitality, business administration and building crafts and GNVQs in manufacture, IT, health and social care. Its strong links with businesses make it possible for students to be assessed in working environments, a requirement of NVQs.
Facilities are impressive. Students use huge, gleaming industrial fridges and cookers for their catering and hospitality NVQs. But the real excitement is in the building and crafts courses: there are walls for students to paper and paint, cement to mix, and bricks and mortar to build with.
The impact on behaviour and attendance has so far been so positive that the school is planning to use disapplication with pupils lower down the school. "From September, we're looking at pump-priming literacy and numeracy skills for about 30 children at key stage 3 with difficulties, probably for three months at a time," says Mr Pout. "It might mean that history, geography and RE will be shelved for that period to enable the learning support team to focus on core skills.
"We may also include arts teachers helping these children develop self-esteem and communication skills. The natural creativity of children has to be allowed to flourish. It's as important as key skills."
Mr Pout believes the real sparks will ignite when these 14-year-olds who have always struggled with academic subjects are introduced to NVQs. With experience of special needs in his own family, he is a parent representative on a special needs working group at St Helens local authority. Perhaps it is that experience - and his own comprehensive background - which has made him so enthusiastic about the need to develop children's capabilities outside traditional subjects.
"I think it's appalling that a straitjacketed national curriculum can be so inflexible that it leads to pupil disaffection," he says. He cites the case of a boy whose average attendance is 20 per cent but who was ever-present while producing "brilliant work" with an artist-in-residence.
John Pout's commitment is to raising the expectations of pupils and their teachers, while taking in 40 pupils a year who've been excluded from other schools and "unpicking the damage". Introducing vocational courses will, he says, have a massive impact on achievement and league table standing so that by 2003 35 per cent of students should be achieving the equivalent of five A to C grades at GCSE. "Our target is that every child will leave school with a GNVQ, NVQ or GCSE and, since GNVQs show up in the league tables, our results have already hugely improved from two years ago."
But the bottom line is to get his pupils on track to make something of their lives. "We will never let these children fail. We are constantly nipping at their ankles. But you have to be realistic about the power of other influences in their lives."