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Damming the flow of teen drop-outs

As the Government struggles to tackle the problem of disaffected youth Lucy Ward and Lucy Hodges report on some college schemes.

Initiatives are being launched across the country to stem the growing flood of teenagers who turn their backs on education and training.

Colleges, training and enterprise councils and local authorities are joining forces in an unprecedented effort to combat the problem. Currently 7 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds nationally are opting out of training, further education or employment.

The schemes are getting underway amid a flurry of new studies which reveal mounting numbers of disaffected young people are dropping out of the system, sceptical of the value of learning and despairing of finding a job.

A study published by the National Youth Agency and based on interviews with 16 to 24-year-olds on Sunderland council estates found increasing numbers were so alienated from society they abandoned all contact with formal work or training and formed alternative criminal communities.

Meanwhile research from the public-services union Unison, whose members include education welfare officers, indicated around 800,000 children are playing truant each year - six times the Goverment's official figure.

Among the initiatives launched this academic year to tackle the problem is a scheme at Barnsley College to invite disaffected pupils approaching school-leaving age to try out college courses during a series of half-day "taster sessions".

The college has built on existing schemes, offering every local 13 and 14-year-old an afternoon sampling courses as they select GCSE options. Schools select those pupils in danger of dropping out, and the college pledges to accredit the training achieved - encouraging students to attend full-time after leaving school.

Anything up to 20 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds - triple the national average - may be among those abandoning the system in Barnsley, according to college director of studies Allan Child. "The problem is growing," he adds. "I think urban areas may be hardest hit, but more and more colleges are starting to do something about it."

Elsewhere, Bournemouth and Poole College has also acted this term to offer a safety net to potential drop-outs, while Wirral Metropolitan has set up programmes involving 200 disaffected 14 to 16-year-olds.

Wirral's work is linked with a scheme being launched by the Chester, Ellesmere Port and Wirral Training and Enterprise Council - one of five TECs to receive a share of Pounds 200,000 Government cash this summer to pilot new approaches to the problem.

The CEWTEC study focuses on the "hidden unemployed" among 16 to 18-year-olds, to examine current practice on drop-outs from training and test solutions such as customised or residential training. The local authority, the college and employers will be closely involved.

Walsall TEC, meanwhile, is using its Pounds 25,000 grant to target Year 11 pupils, offering truants the "bargain" of a weekly release to college or work experience in exchange for regular school attendance. "It is about getting some agreement with the young person over what they are prepared to do within the school environment," says head of education and strategy Sue Fullard.

Other TECs running pilot schemes are Manchester, West London and Birmingham.

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