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Modular courses a la francaise

A north London borough has come up with a radical policy to improve the prospects of its young people. Elaine Carlton reports. A unique parliamentary-style inquiry into education by one local authority has produced a radical plan of action for the area.

In a bid to solve the problem of poor achievement and high youth unemployment in Islington, north London, the local council has carried out a sweeping investigation into young people's educational experiences.

The authority is now examining a controversial policy of allowing pupils under the age of 16 to study at college, and is also looking to develop a post-16 qualification, based on the French baccalaureat.

These plans are the recommendations of Islington's Scrutiny Panel, a group of all-party councillors who commissioned research into the borough's education and training programmes.

The borough, where about 25 per cent of young people are unemployed and only 18 per cent achieve A-C grades at GCSE, used the parliamentary select committee system of inquiry as a basis for its own. "Witnesses" from different areas of the system were "cross-examined" on issues raised by the research.

Joe Simpson, the Labour councillor who chaired the panel, soon realised he should be "looking the other way up the telescope". He said: "Local government needs to represent the consumers rather than the providers, but the providers believe we are there to defend them."

He wanted an independent inquiry and decided to use the all-party select committee idea. The panel, made up of three Labour and one Lib-Dem councillor, wrote to every 17- to 19-year-old, askingfor details of their educational experiences.

The authority's youth service organised eight 16 to 19 ethnically selected and gender specific groups to discuss how they felt about their education.

The panel received a 30 per cent response rate to their letters, and the findings from the group discussions were shocking. "We found it impossible to get a group of white young men to talk at all about their experience of education and training," Mr Simpson said.

"Even with youth workers they knew and trusted, they were simply too angry to discuss it." These young people felt they had been utterly rejected by the system during their education and had no interest in discussing it now, it emerged.

Many more felt they had got lost in the education jungle and had little idea of why or how they had ended up following a particular career or studying at a particular institution.

More than 50 young people were interviewed by the youth service. "Even amongst those on courses or in successful careers many wondered how they had got there," said Mr Simpson.

He then called before the panel the principals of City and Islington College and Kingsway College, the headteacher of Highbury Grove, the head of the youth service, Clive Leach, and Peter Holmes of the Training and Enterprise Council.

"We asked them how the system was working for them and how we could make it better," he said.

Now in a bid to improve Islington's 63 per cent stay-on rate - the lowest of any inner-London borough - the panel has called for all providers to join up for the benefit of their students, and is rethinking its careers service.

The council wants much closer links between schools and colleges, and wants both to look straightaway at the possibility of having 14-year-olds study at college. The panel also recommends that schools and colleges link up to help students decide their future education after GCSE.

Tom Jupp, head of City and Islington College, plans to take part in this working group. But he has doubts about its effectiveness: "There are tensions between the rival providers. School sixth forms are in direct competition with colleges and they are in competition with each other. This has always been one of the big difficulties."

Mr Jupp is equally unsure about the possibility of students below age 16 coming to college. "Schools will not want to opt out of their main business. Who will decide who leaves at 14 and how the funding will be worked out?" He believes that to stop young people dropping out, schools will have to work with careers services to identify those who are "at risk" and spend more time with them, helping them make the right choice.

The TEC is to start working with the local education authority and careers service to produce information for students on where to go and what to do at 16.

The panel also believes that 16-year-old pupils should not be forced to decide the rest of their lives in one go. Modular courses, like the French bac, would give pupils who realise they hate their course after one year the chance to swap.

"If you start off doing chemistry A-level and then realise after a year its not what you want to do, you may have gone down a cul-de-sac," says Mr Simpson.

"We recommend that institutions involved in post-16 qualifications in Islington should look closely at how they could develop modular qualifications as soon as national conditions allow."

Mr Simpson would like to see the recommendations implemented at once but recognises that for some of them to be enforced a change of government would be necessary.

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