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Life Choices

With the figures for school absences in Scotland released this week, Raymond Ross reports on a pioneering project that is getting serious non-attenders back into the education system

Preparing to sit Standard grades can be tough for any adolescent. Preparing to sit them when you're homeless is another matter altogether. This was the situation facing 15-year-old Peter (not his real name), who had absconded from a children's home in Fife and presented himself as homeless to the Glasgow social work department last spring. At that point Rathbone CI, a charity that specialises in providing for people with special educational needs, was called in.

With his Standard grades just weeks away, Peter stood no chance of being taken back by his old school. In fact, his disruptive behaviour ensured there was not one school in Glasgow that would accept him.

Rathbone CI persuaded Yorkhill Children's Hospital to be his accredited centre. He received last-minute tutoring there and sat seven Standard grade exams at Rathbone's own offices in the Gorbals - and passed.

Peter's case may seem unusual if not extreme, but Rathbone's recent expansion throughout Scotland is testimony to the needs of many pupils who are excluded from school or fail to attend.

"The kids referred to us have often been away from school for as long as a year," says Gerry Gallagher, Rathbone's director for Scotland.

"We now want to reach pupils who are at risk of being excluded or who are starting to develop a pattern of non-attendance, to help them while they are still in the education system."

Rathbone CI was formed in 1995 by a merger of two training bodies for young people with special educational needs. Community Industries (CI), the Scottish arm, has been in existence since the early Seventies, operating eight youth and adult training centres, in Clydebank, Dundee, Glasgow, Glenrothes, Greenock, Inverness, Kilmarnock and Lanark.

In 1997 Rathbone launched its Choices programme for 14 to 16-year-olds with learning difficulties or special needs, and pupils who have school attendance problems or are excluded. It now has 110 young people on Choices projects throughout Scotland and is launching a new scheme in Angus in April.

Rathbone adopts a partnership approach, working through multi-agency youth strategy teams, social work departments and schools. "We agree with the Children Scotland Act 1995, which recommends partnerships be formed to address the needs of young people, and we believe our multi-agency approach works," says Gallagher.

Another essential ingredient in the effort to get pupils back into the education system and into employment is partnership with local employers.

"Most employers do it through a social conscience," says Gallagher. "In fact, some of them tell us they can see a bit of themselves in the youngsters."

Personal development training, an introduction to the world of work, on-going support and training, and aftercare are all essential elements of the programme.

"We modelled our Choices project on a successful scheme from England, and adapted it to Scottish conditions. Introducing it to Scotland, we found agencies here began to recognise there were more school non-attenders than some figures suggested. Many had previously been swept under the carpet," says Gallagher.

"We came into the market at the right time. We lobbied for three years to set up the scheme. Our aim now is to have a Choices project attached to each of our eight units in Scotland," he adds.

The first Choices programme was launched in East Ayrshire in September 1997, specifically for young offenders. Since then the emphasis has shifted slightly, but most of the referrals there, 10 full-time and 25 part-time, live with carers, or are in care or secure units.

In Lanarkshire, the project involves 25 young people - most with a history of exclusion or truancy - in part-time work experience placements. It also works with Airdrie Academy and Caldervale High School, as well as with community education and social work, to support another 25 pupils at risk of being excluded.

The 10 full-time and 15 part-time students in Glasgow are all in care, just coming out of care, likely to go back into care or with foster parents, and have been referred by the social work department. Here Rathbone works closely with the children's panel, concentrating on delivering literacy, numeracy and - crucially - independent living skills.

Funded over two years to the tune of pound;168,000 from the National Lottery, the Glasgow project, says Gallagher, is further proof that Rathbone reaches parts the mainstream education system doesn't.

"The model works. It confirms what we have been saying - that there is a significant group here in Scotland which needs help," he says.

The model begins with an assessment and induction programme that aims to identify the needs of individual pupils through reports and by listening to the youngsters themselves ("imperative" in Rathbone guidelines). Training and counselling are offered in a non-judgmental, non-threatening environment.

Senior tutor Pauline O'Hagan says: "We learn about their aims and level of maturity. We have prior information as well, of course. Given their backgrounds, our pupils tend to have low expectations rather than fantasy ones."

Two of the 15-year-olds confirm that the project is making a difference for them.

Paul was excluded from two schools for disruptive behaviour, but is now undertaking his second work placement as a joiner (see picture) with Glasgow City Building one day a week, and attends classes the rest of week at the Rathbone centre. He says of Rathbone: "Teachers listen to us more. They make me do things I couldn't do before and it's good because it's smaller groups."

Marie, a school non-attender for two years, is just beginning her first nursery nurse placement in Richmond Park Special School while working on independent living skills. "They teach you well at Rathbone. They ask you. They're more interested, more helpful. I never used to get on with teachers or other pupils. Gossips. I want to work with children. I'm a patient person. Easy-going - sometimes."

Rathbone deals with far more male than female pupils. In Glasgow the ratio is eight to one, says Jane Scoular, the development officer for Scotland, and herself a former teacher.

"It is mostly boys. They tend to come with a package of problems that shows in their behaviour, including violence. With girls the problem tends to be more acute, perhaps due to physical abuse or alcohol dependency. Perhaps girls internalise more, where boys will act out and display that something is wrong," she says.

Getting to know the pupils is crucial and sometimes a chance piece of information can be the key to turning around problem behaviour or attitudes.

Take the case of James (not his real name). Referred to the East Ayrshire project in Kilmarnock, James had a history of violent behaviour and school exclusion. He was on a downward spiral until staff discovered he liked fishing. Rathbone got him a work placement on a local fish farm, where he impressed his employer, who suggested he train in fish farm management.

Despite James's protestations that he couldn't do it, he overcame his fear of failure and is now attending Barony College in Dumfries, taking a course in fish farm management while holding down a weekend job at the local fish farm.

"Very few of our youngsters have expectations because they have no role models - even for work," says Jane Scoular. "A family might be in the second or third generation of unemployment, or from an area where nearly everyone is unemployed."

According to official statistics:

* 70 per cent of habitual truants leave school with no exam passes and half of them lack basic skills;

* 75 per cent of young people in care in Scotland leave with no formal qualifications;

* children in residential care are 80 times more likely to be excluded than those living with their families.

Rathbone knows it has its work cut out. But the bottom line, says Gallagher, is: "If we don't invest in these kids in their troubled times, we will all pay for their lives of social exclusion. Inclusion is the key. It makes economic and moral sense."

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