Keep hold of your struggling S4s, head tells schools

`Unstructured' college life is too difficult for some, he says

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Pupils who leave school at 16 to attend further education colleges are often the ones who should be persuaded to stay on for two more years, according to a headteacher in one of Edinburgh's most deprived areas.

S4 leavers often drifted into further education but dropped out in the first six to eight weeks because they could not cope in the relatively unstructured environment, said Steve Ross, headteacher at Craigroyston Community High School. He added that often they had been actively advised to leave school.

"We encourage the least-able kids to leave at the end of the fourth year. Often, these people are the least able to cope with further education," Mr Ross told a conference on digital and ICT skills in Linlithgow last week.

In school, pupils who needed extra support had guidance teachers and heads of year looking out for them, something that they did not necessarily receive in FE, he said.

He added that some young people did not have the resilience, maturity or support at home that was needed to cope with college life, where staff would not know them as well. For these pupils, school provided "the structure of support and the friendly and welcoming atmosphere that they know and feel comfortable and safe in," he said.

"Colleges don't work in the way schools do," Mr Ross added. "They don't have teachers who are going to phone every day to check that students are coming in."

Mr Ross spoke out as the Scottish government published its new youth employment strategy this week. One of the goals is for all colleges to oversee vocational courses within the majority of secondary schools in their region by 2017-18 and within all secondaries by 2018-19.

The document was drawn up in response to the findings of the Wood commission for developing Scotland's young workforce.

Mr Ross's own school "strongly encourages" all pupils to stay on until the end of S6, he said. Since August it has been developing a wider senior curriculum, covering courses as varied as boat-building, media production, mountain bike maintenance and cake craft. It also offers qualifications not usually found in schools, such as City amp; Guilds.

The school is building relationships with colleges so that it can offer FE courses on its own premises, and also has an advisory group of 17 businesses that provides staff and pupils with advice about getting into various careers. "I think education should be getting people ready for careers - I really don't care what that career is," Mr Ross said.

The school asks pupils to prove that they have a clear route to a job before they leave, and Craigroyston teachers will check young people's career progress even after they have moved on.

Rob Wallen, the principal of North East Scotland College, told TESS after the conference that college programmes were different from those offered in most schools as they used industry-standard equipment and were taught by staff with real-world experience.

"There are some young people for whom staying at school is the most suitable option when they reach age 16, but there are others for whom joining a full-time college programme is more appropriate," he said.

Each year, many 16-year-olds successfully progressed to FE and colleges provided guidance and support to help them choose the right programme, Mr Wallen said. But, he added, there was also "an important role for school staff in helping pupils plan for and make the transition into college study".

According to Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, Mr Ross's comments chimed with the Wood commission's recommendations.

"We are likely to see this approach having a higher profile in schools around the country," Ms Prior said. "The objective is to ensure that all young people have choices and career routes - the challenge will be to ensure that the culture in schools changes and that parents are fully involved in making this shift."

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