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College lifeline for last chance kids

More than 100 of Renfrewshire's most disaffected 15-year-olds are showing that an alternative curriculum in an adult setting can transform behaviour and life chances.

As Scottish Executive ministers step up their campaign on classroom indiscipline and teachers' unions complain insistently about the lack of appropriate sanctions, the initiative at Reid Kerr College in Paisley has confirmed that school is simply the wrong place for many young people.

Only four students out of 114 have failed to complete their final year of compulsory schooling at a base in the college. Four out of 10 have gone on to a college course.

Around three-quarters have had significant learning difficulties since primary school and most have been excluded from secondary or simply did not bother turning up after repeated incidents with teachers and fellow pupils.

Their average attendance rate has doubled.

Jim Doherty, a Strathclyde University researcher, who has been evaluating the New Directions project, described the students' changed attitude last week as a "remarkable and extraordinary transformation".

Mr Doherty, a former depute head in Renfrewshire, said: "We are talking about people who by any objective standards have been failures. They are not at school. Their behaviour has been problematical and their qualifications virtually nil. They are in trouble in school, outside school and in trouble in their families. They come to New Directions and are given a new sense of self-belief."

He added: "It is absolutely untrue from the evidence available from the young people that they are disengaged from or disaffected by learning. It is not learning, it is what has masqueraded in their minds as learning.

"The reality is that these children have been presented for accreditation with the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) and have been successful."

New Directions is in effect a "late intervention project" for students for whom schools can do nothing more. Only 30 places are available each year and 12 of the authority's 14 secondaries have taken advantage.

Students sign a contract that involves the project in devising the kind of curriculum that interests them. They follow a core skills programme, backed by vocational options, personal and social development, work experience and individual support from a team of key workers.

"The curriculum is creative, innovative and flexible," Mr Doherty said.

"They have the opportunity in Reid Kerr College with the facilities which are here to take part in the kind of activities they could not take part in in mainstream education. They can change the courses if they are not settling in. That is not a feature of the secondary school."

Mr Doherty said a similar initiative based in schools had been tried 25 years ago but did not take off. Now the key workers' attitudes to young people were fundamentally different.

"They do not treat them like adults, they treat them as adults. There is a qualitative difference between the relationships in New Directions and the staff in the majority of secondary schools. That's not a criticism of secondary schools. They are differently organised and there are time limitations," Mr Doherty said.

New Directions staff were able to set short-term targets and help young people develop an "I can do this" philosophy.

"Something outstanding and different is happening here," Mr Doherty said.

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