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Engaging the disaffected

Pat McDermott answers your leadership questions

I am the 14-19 co-ordinator at our school, and I have been asked to give a talk next week on the educational possibilities for these students in the the light of the Government's white paper on the subject. Our profile seems to fit the national picture where the staying-on rate at post-16 is still too low and many local employers are not satisfied with the basic skills of our school leavers who take jobs with them. We are still finding our way in this area. How should I pitch my talk?

This is a really interesting area to talk about but one that is shot through with educational jargon and technical language, so be careful.

For any talk to be useful and well received the first thing to do is find out as much as you can about the audience such as: Who are they? What are their expectations? Why are they coming to listen to you?

Secondly what is it that you really want to get across to these people?

Is it an information evening? Who has asked you to speak and why? What are your expectations of the event?

The recent white paper "14-19 Education and Skills" proposes reform to the areas of curriculum, assessment and the range of opportunities on offer to our secondary school pupils. Your audience may be expecting to hear about what your school is going to do. Do you know yet?

Also, one of the things that you may want to mention is what your school is going to do in order to increase the participation rate in line with the Government's target of increasing it nationally from 75 per cent to 90 per cent over the next 10 years. One way some schools are working on this is to extend their provision of vocational routes so that more pupils stay on because there is something suited to their needs. All schools will have to think long and hard about how they will re-engage those young people who are presently disaffected.

I am sure that you will want to talk about how the Key Stage 3 curriculum has already prepared your pupils for the possibilities from 14 to 19 in your school. Beware of the jargon here though. Words like "core" and "foundation" in relation to subjects are more likely to have connotations for parents which have nothing to do with education.

Similarly, resist the temptation to inform them about "the new relationship with schools" as you may end up having a "single conversation" of a completely different order from the one intended by the Government.

Your audience may be more interested to learn that their children will be awarded a general GCSE Diploma if they have achieved five A*-C grades including English and Maths and that the present league tables will be phased out in 2008 and replaced by a table recording the percentage of pupils awarded this new Diploma in schools.

One of the problems you may face is that the people you really need to take part in this meeting will not be there. Schools frequently lament the fact that the people who would benefit most from attending were absent.

The young people who face serious difficulties and personal problems are the very ones who could benefit most from the proposed pilot programme for 14 to 16-year-olds. This will provide a tailored programme for each young person, including intensive personal guidance and support.

These young people will probably be offered two days a week work-based learning and the possibility of apprenticeships. This should be available from 2007, but if these people are not at your meeting then how are you going to inform them of this programme?

Next week it will be relatively easy for you to outline the goodies contained in the white paper. However, what you will find more difficult to do is to provide your audience with the detailed response that your school will be making to these proposals.

Give yourself more time. Postpone the meeting until you have thought out the implications of the white paper for your school. When you have done this, then you will be ready to talk to parents.

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls' school in Bradford. This is his third headship. He has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and has mentored Catholic heads for 10 years. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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