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Coming back for a second chance

Mary Hampshire reports on a project in Leeds that helps young people who missed out on education first time around.

CHRIS Freeman left school with no qualifications.

Now at age 19, he is making up for lost time. Chris is one of 50 students attending Britain's only Second Chance school in Leeds.

Sixteen to 24-year-olds study GCSEs, vocational qualifications and personal skills to prepare them for the job market. The biggest step for many, who have bad memories of school, is walking through the doors.

Run from the East Leeds family learning centre, the site used to be a secondary school. It was closed following a damaging report from the Office for Standards in Education four years ago.

"I felt odd coming back," admits Chris, a former pupil who served four months in prison for assault last year. It used to be so run-down. I didn't enjoy secondary school here. I got into trouble most of the time.

"When I was jumped on by seven lads, and suffered a head injury, the teachers weren't interested.

"So, my dad took me out of school and I started working for his double-glazing business at 15."

Chris's grandmother heard about the Second Chance school and suggested he enrol last year.

A two-year pilot, it is funded by the European Union, the local authority and the private sector. There are 20 of these schools across Europe including ones in France, Germany, Finland, Italy and Sweden.

"Many of the students - mostly boys - left school with few qualifications. They come from deprived areas with high unemployment," says Sally Rippon, senior tutor.

"Some have been in prison. Others have behaviour problems, learning difficulties or under-achieved as a result of a bereavement, abuse or poverty.

"Our job is to give them a second - and in some cases - a third or fourth chance, to equip them to succeed in life by creating a timetable suited to individual needs."

Students attend part-time or full-time, and are referred by the careers and employment services or hear through word of mouth. They can enrol any time for one to two years. The syllabus includes opportunities to study GCSE English, maths, human biology, photography, accounting and law by linking in to courses run by Thomas Danby, a local further education college, on site.

NVQs in hairdressing, information technology and business administration, for example, are also options. In addition, students attend workshops in communications, numeracy, the Internet, decision-making, time management, presentation, assertiveness and confidence building.

"or some students, it's a case of learning how to pay their bills and add up rather than studying high-level stuff," says Sally Rippon.

Drama, team games, circuit training, cookery and language classes are also modules accredited by the West and North Yorkshire Open College Network.

Moves are afoot to establish three more Second Chance schools in the UK. Graham Lane, education chair for the Local Government Association, which helped secure EU funding for the Leeds project, says: "It's wonderful to watch these young people grow in confidence and skills.

"We're lobbying national government to set up another three, ideally one in the South, one in Scotland and also Wales."

One 23-year-old was a persistent truant from the age of 14 and left school with no qualifications. He is currently studying GCSEs in maths and English, and for a multimedia certificate.

Chris Freeman enrolled part-time in September 1999 and started GCSE maths and English. His course was interrupted by a four-month spell in an open prison for an assault which happened before he joined the school.

"I can't remember much about it. It happened on a drunken night out," he says. "While in prison, I decided to make a life. I stopped drinking, started working out in the gym and felt determined to do better. I kept in touch with my Second Chance tutors.

"Now my ambition is to become a landscape gardener and take NVQs level 2 and 3. I've enjoyed getting to know people, learning how to cook and use a computer. I'm a lot happier."

Pam Sheppard, aged 20, has six GCSEs grades Es and Fs, and joined in September 1999. "I wanted to improve my confidence and job skills.

"I enjoy sport, cooking and the computing classes. I've set up a weekly placement working with animals and hope to find a job in that area."

Paul Thompson, aged 19, joined in June this year and has some D and F grade GCSEs. He is re-taking English and studying for a leisure and tourism qualification.

"I was bullied and moved to seven different schools. It was very disruptive. I'm also dyslexic. I'd like to work in a travel agency."

Carolyne Waite, aged 23, who enrolled full-time in April 1999, had no qualifications. "School was okay, not that bad," she says. "But I was bottom of the class in maths and English, and wasn't entered for GCSEs, and second from top in science. No one worked out why.

"At 17, I was diagnosed as dyslexic. Now, I'm studying for an NVQ in retail and start a job with Tesco, which will continue my training, in September.

"I'm very pleased."

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