Crunch time comes for the young cereal munchers

Lucy Ward & Lucy Hodges

As the Government struggles to tackle the problem of disaffected youth Lucy Ward and Lucy Hodges report on some college schemes A mission to end the "Rice Crispies curriculum" has led to the launch of a pioneering scheme to prevent disaffected teenagers from dropping out of education and training.

The cereal label was invented at Bournemouth and Poole College to sum up the scenario where permanently-excluded 15 and 16-year-olds find themselves installed in support units munching breakfast at 2pm - cared for but not challenged.

Some pupils, left to serve out a final year or two of compulsory education in a pupil referral unit or through home tuition, will gradually begin to lose faith in the system. Once beyond leaving age they are far harder to bring back to the fold.

College pre-vocational studies manager, Lawrence Vincent, and Steve Cottrell, director of Dorset County Council's behaviour support service, began devising an answer.

They produced Bridging the Gap - an initiative bringing a control group of permanently-excluded Year 11 pupils into college to join GCSE courses or vocational training.

At the centre of the Pounds 40,000-programme are weekly tutorials for each student, combined with close liaison between college and referral unit, allowing an unprecedented level of monitoring of progress.

The two colleagues, who developed their scheme earlier this year, based their efforts on links already in place between the college, schools and referral units.

The existing system, says Mr Cottrell, was uncoordinated and rarely successful. "Schools were sending kids to college for maybe a day a week on an entirely ad hoc basis, and there was no real means of checking whether they had turned up or not. No one was tracking their progress."

Close monitoring of the chosen students became a lynchpin of the new scheme. The pilot batch of 14 met lecturer Rebecca Fahy each week to discuss their work since the programme began at the start of this academic year. The teenagers are obliged to resolve problems such as lateness or non-attendance.

All but two have been excluded from school, and either attend a referral unit or have received home tuition. They come to college for anything from a day a week, for vocational training in subjects such as horticulture or car maintenance, to 16 hours to study four GCSEs.

"The key is to ensure a high quality education with a far greater status for these young people," according to Mr Vincent. The highly-structured system, with a firm top limit on numbers, prevents schools taking advantage of the system to off-load unruly pupils, he adds. "They also need a formalised support structure - they don't respond to an ad hoc approach."

Unlike schemes now emerging to lure back 16 and 17-year-olds who have already vanished from the education and training world, Bridging the Gap is in the prevention camp. If teenagers can be introduced to the college environment in Year 11, the chances are they will return to continue study or training.

"We are about preparing these kids for adulthood, and changing their perception that education stops at 16," says Mr Cottrell. "All the research suggests kids who drop out before then are far more likely to turn to crime or deliquency."

The 14 pioneers of the scheme are responding confidently to the challenge, Ms Fahy says. While progress has not been entirely hitch-free - a few students have missed a lesson or two or caused minor trouble in class - the group is progressing well and even demanding more college hours.

Becky, 15, a referral unit pupil has already organised work experience at her local paper to complement a media course. Her friends, she says, are jealous that she is already at college.

Students like the relaxed college atmosphere. "Here you have more responsibility," says Kelvin Willis, 15. "This is what I think I would have preferred all through my life."

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