An innovative history course is just part of an alternative to A-levels helping students at a London college to succeed. James Sturcke reports
CRIME might not pay but studying it is yielding dividends in a radical programme at a south London college.
The ground-breaking history of crime and punishment course is being offered to 16 to 19-year-olds deemed unsuitable for traditional A-levels by their tutors.
And as this year's leavers prepare to submit their final-year coursework, Lewisham College is hoping to maintain its 100 per cent success rate at getting students from the programme into universities.
The crime course makes up part of the first year of the two-year Youth Entry to Higher Education (YEHE) programme and has succeeded in capturing students' imagination.
Ann West, director of the faculty of general education, said: "YEHE came about after a wide-ranging curriculum review in 1996. We found that about a third of our 100-odd students who took A-level courses annually got very little out of them.
"But we believed they had the potential to succeed in academic programmes in higher education and started to think, in some cases, the fundamental problem could be the A-level itself. After considerable research we came to the inescapable conclusion that traditional A-levels were no longer appropriate, if they ever had been, for up to 30 per cent of our able young people."
College research showed some bright students, particularly from inner-city and urban estate communities, were ill-suited to A-levels because of socio-economic, cultural or personal reasons. They were often students who froze in exams or had poor writing skills. Many were from families where nobody had ever gone on to higher education.
In response, the college drafted its own alternative course, heavily influenced by Professor John Tomlinson's work on inclusive learning and pioneered by teacher Sabrina Poma.
The emerging YEHE humanities and social science programme has a radical approach to dealing with its traditional academic disciplines - economics, law, sociology, psychology, history and politics.
Just as history uses crime and punishment to grab student attention, the politics classes rely heavily on class discussion on current issues in the press. The law class, apart from regular visits to the Old Bailey, devotes a large chunk of course time to looking at famous miscarriages of justice.
Ruth Griffiths, law and politics tutor, said: "All the courses are very hands-on and based on reality. We try to fit the programmes around the students' interests. Our task is to relate the subject to our learners in a way that strikes a chord with their personal interests and sometimes very different cultural backgrounds.
"The strength of the YEHE programme is it accepts there are particular skills which are associated with the study of law, politics and the other disciplines. It then introduces and develops those skills in a way that will appeal to students from a non-academic background.
"The programme takes up the challenge of providing a context for each subject that will enthuse and motivate students as they develop their skills. It also links the disciplines - the history of crime and punishment links with the law classes."
Miss Griffiths cites former student Edward Sudds as a shining example of the course's success. Edward, now 21, is severely dyslexic and struggled when he started A-level work.
She said: "He did a year of A-level but had not done very well. He is able but his writing was poor and his self-confidence low. He was very quiet when he started. He was also the only white lad in a very mixed ethnic year.
"Once he started on YEHE he really came out of himself. He kept coming to me asking for advice about where he was going wrong and then putting it right. He improved so much he was able to take on an AS-level citizenship course. He finished getting 21 credits (12 are needed to pass) and he's now at Southampton Institute.
"The course gave him the ability to develop himself and to realise his potential."
The college believes the programme is unique, offering general national vocational qualification-type skills but in traditional academic subjects.
It says the course is similar to some adult Access programmes. Since the students are younger, they get more teacher guidance, with three hours of group tutorials a week and one-to-one tutorials three times a term.
They must also achieve level 3 key skills in communications, numeracy and statistics, and IT.
Though there was initial uncertainty about external recognition of the programme, it is now accredited by the London Open College Network. A pass requires 12 credits but students on average gain 18-21.
Initially working in consultation with local universities such as Greenwich and Southwark, the college has found those further afield will recognise the award. This year's students have offers from the University of Kent at Canterbury and Reading University.
Ms West said: "We are convinced what we are doing is absolutely right for even more students than we originally thought. It is not less demanding than A-level. Nothing at level 3 is easy.
"The 21 students who have completed the programme so far have achieved far more than we would have expected. And we are getting near the stage where they can go right through to university without ever touching a GCSE or A-level."
She added: "The feeling you can only demonstrate your academic potential in exams should be challenged. A large number of people who come to FE colleges have not necessarily shown their abilities through academic procedures such as GCSE."
`IT'S GOT ME THINKING ABOUT MORALITY AND JUSTICE'
* KENE Okwuosa, 18, has four GCSEs. He grew up in Deptford, south-east London, but his family is from Nigeria. He said: "I used to think law was boring but that has changed and the course is quite interesting.
"Law is my favourite subject on the course. We've been looking at cases like Diane Pretty and euthanasia. It makes you wonder if you want to live through all that pain. It's got me thinking about morality and justice at the same time.
"I was going to do A-levels but, although I'm OK at exams, they don't always go so well. I want to read economics at the London School of Economics. The tutors help a lot. I have had help about personal stuff as well as classes. They play a massive role in motivating you."
NICOLA Speller, 19, from Walworth, south London, said: "Before I did this course I did travel and tourism A-levels. But then I realised the subject was not really for me and I didn't want to study it at university.
"This course gives me the chance to try out a wider range of subjects. I just wanted to better my grades and learn new skills.
"Exams were always my downfall. I chose this course because there weren't any. I can do my work the best can and keep improving the coursework. I want to do law."
Nahimana Justine (name changed to protect identity), 17, lives in Catford, south-east London. Originally from Burundi, she was orphaned in Rwanda and came to Britain a year ago.
She said: "I wanted to do A-levels but they said it would be hard because my English was not very good when I came here. It was hard to find a course here. I am here by myself.
"I want to do international relations - my country is at war. I would like to go back to my country after the course, but I do not know if the situation will be stable.
"Back home the studies are moretheoretical and more learning by heart; less practical. Here there are more resources and computers to use. I likethis course."