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Mentors help to cut drop-out rates

David Henderson reports on a major drive to give young people support before college. Volunteer mentors are helping to reduce a 50 per cent drop-out rate at a south Glasgow FE college.

As many as half of the 600 under-18s who have registered at Langside College could be expected to drop out of their courses, using previous figures as a guide.

But 15-year-old Michael Preen, from the Bridgeton area, who dropped out of school earlier this year, does not intend to do so a second time. His temper, he admits, led him into trouble at school, and it was only a spell at an out-of-school project in the spring that put him back on the rails.

Michael is determined to succeed on his 18-week pre-vocational building and construction course and make the most of education the second time round, stimulated by an eight-week pre-college preparation course during the summer. "It's much better than school. They treat you like an adult. You're not treated like a wean," he said.

The first from his family to go to college, he concentrated on basic skills during the preparation course, and now displays a remarkable confidence about his prospects.

Roy Breustedt, the college's youth access and support co-ordinator, is delighted after working with him over the summer on the pilot course, run jointly with the city council's community education service.

The drop-out figures are a key reason for the major drive to provide young people with more intensive support before college and in the early stages. A mentoring scheme involving 40 volunteers is at the heart of the Langside initiative.

Mr Breustedt, a former art teacher and young offenders' worker, is not surprised at young people's difficulties in coming to terms with college life and the adult world. They are facing a more complex transition, a fact reflected in the increasing suicide rate among young males, he says.

"A lot of young people are turning to FE, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. They're coming because their mates are here, they do not know what else to do or can get a bursary. Some are coming into FE for the right reasons, but are ill-prepared for it. This is reflected in the drop-out rate. That's the evidence. That's the proof," he says.

With 16-18s unable to sign on the dole, college may be the only option other than dropping out, which many appear to do, according to Mr Breustedt. Only 9 per cent of 16-year-olds go straight into work. There are few options and the former youth training schemes are "debased currency", Mr Breustedt has found. Young people would rather work voluntarily in a proper workplace than go on meaningless training schemes, he has found.

Lack of confidence is among the most striking features of the new intake. Mr Breustedt said: "There is the stress and apprehension about coming into a large further education institution. It can be terrifying to get through the door. Even if it's an adult, it does not mean they do not need help. Some young people, particularly those most vulnerable and disadvantaged, cannot get through the form-filling, the bureaucracy.

"And they think, 'Can I do the work? Who are all these people? Where are the classrooms? Will I like the lecturer? Will they like me?' For young people who have not had a good school experience, it's the self-discipline that gets to them, especially if you've not been applying that to themselves for a while. There is nobody to tell you to do your homework."

The college's developing youth strategy is geared towards eliminating anxieties and helping young people to make the most of their opportunities. Youth is defined as up to 24, since many young returners who have been out of education for several years experience the same problems as 16 or 17-year-olds.

This summer, Mr Breustedt organised two courses, one for 18 disadvantaged young people and the other for 16 with moderate learning difficulties. Besides lack of confidence, absence of basic skills was the most startling finding. "I'm amazed at the lack of basic literacy. There's one 21-year-old who can hardly write his name," he says.

Many, however, are driven towards achieving something in education, realising they need qualifications to get on. Working with children, motor mechanics, joinery, building and construction are among the favoured options. "Many do not have a clue, so they need a fair degree of self-analysis and guidance. Some come with totally unrealistic expectations," Mr Breustedt said.

The key to the counter-strategy is mentoring, with a bank of existing students and other adults to call on, all of whom have been through an initial training course. But it is up to the new intake to choose whether they want a confidant.

Mr Breustedt, who doubles as a communication lecturer and community liaison officer, explained: "It's a friendly face, human warmth. Someone to ask how to get to the library and to help the person to do things for themselves. It's not about academic help."

Not all 600 students will benefit this year, but the college hopes the spin-offs from the pilot project will cut the human wastage. Langside calls it "investing in people".

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