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As the Executive engages with disaffected learners, Alan McLean calls for real engagement

THE Executive's top priority for education is closing the gap between successful pupils and those it labels "disaffected".

Disengaged learners certainly need a champion as they are challenging, frustrating and badly understood. Some of our deepest prejudices lead us to construe their problems as self-inflicted and so they don't evoke much sympathy.

The view that non-participation is the fault of the disengaged is unhelpful. Any service enterprise that blamed its market for a lack of business wouldn't last long. Current rhetoric puts the individual pupil at the centre, but in reality it is the young person who must change. And this begs the question, is the second gap we need to close the one between rhetoric and reality?

Many pupils become increasingly disengaged from secondary as a result of curricular irrelevance and overload and insufficient differentiation. While the child-centred primary engages pupils, pupils have to engage with the teacher-centred secondary. In secondary there is more teacher control, more public evaluation and more emphasis on ability. There is also less choice, support and clarity about classroom life. The pressure to chase higher standards has left many teachers feeling controlled by, rather than in control of, the curriculum. They often download this stress to pupils via fraught classroom climates. The achievement agenda has also given the high moral ground to those teachers who see their job as teaching subjects rather than pupils.

Teachers encourage pupils in top sections to work independently and allow them some choice and responsibility. But they structure lower sections more tightly and give them fewer opportunities for independent learning and creativity.

Some teachers think, like doctors with poor bedside manners, that they have little responsibility for creating the climate that engages pupils in learning. One head told me recently some of his staff want to be FE lecturers rather than teachers. When disengaged learners meet disengaged teachers, even more restricted methods and content can result. Some teachers complain about disengaged pupils but then resent any special treatment given to them, seeing it as rewarding bad behaviour.

For some pupils, it is difficult to find any hook to engage them in learning. The answer might partially lie in the Executive's encouragement to schools to offer a range of learning opportunities that can be delivered in a variety of settings to meet individual needs. Rather than imposing yet more traditional learning on the seemingly reluctant, alternative approaches can be shaped around pupils' goals and "real life" experiences and challenges. New Higher Still courses such as cooking with confidence and food preparation look promising as they are more practical and relevant for some pupils than Standard grade courses. The search for a hook may need to be within a new medium. Outdoor activities, for example, can provide novel challenges, intense relationships, group identity, trust and the discovery of new strengths.

Drama, through peer affirmation and high-energy situations that offer trust and intimacy, can provide pupils with the emotional security and voice to express their feelings. In a similar way, dance releases endorphins, raises the heart rate, promotes energy and so creates the body's natural high.

Enterprise education has an immediate attraction because of its real-life connections.

Computers provide a competitive, but private and therefore low threat, climate where engagement is unconditional. They allow pupils to be in control and less reliant on teachers. Stimulation is provided through small, achievable targets. Computers offer feedback that is not only instant and individualised but consistent, objective and, unlike much teacher feedback, non-judgmental.

Schools transform the lives of many young people but our education system could have even more impact. Those pupils with transient difficulties should be sustainable in classrooms with support. However, by 14, some pupils have had such a history of disengagement that they need a change of scene if they are to progress to further training or employment. Such pupils need learning contexts that start from and build on their interests and goals, provide as few obstacles and threats as possible and give purpose to their learning. Such contexts need to be connected to something that tunes into their own sub-culture.

Many young people are keen to learn but not in formal classrooms. Given the right opportunities and channelled interests, they can thrive in transitional programmes where they are given space to mature at their own pace. They respond to being treated in a more informal way, to being able to access different environments, engage in alternative learning styles and experience the value of work.

Schools need to discover pupils' "signature" strengths and to find the best niche for them to use these qualities to the full, rather than fix their shortcomings. This would allow pupils' identities to be defined by their strengths not their deficiencies. They would then graduate from school rather than be dispatched or disappear from formal education. Perhaps the biggest gap we must close is the one between schools and the world of work, further education and training.

Schooling has become too complex in our relentless drive for higher achievement and we have forgotten about the basic needs of our young people.

Pupils need to be valued by teachers, surrounded by a cohesive peer group and given a sense of belonging and control, the stimulation of real life learning and recognition for whatever they achieve. As long as the driving force is excellence in certain prescribed skills, we will celebrate success in these skills and ignore others.

But the way schools label talent doesn't always represent the real world. A nation of lifelong learners requires accredited learning to include activities that are connected with all pupils' lives and interests. Perhaps future league tables could measure pupils' feelings of engagement and self-improvement in skills that are important to them.

Alan McLean is an educational psychologist in Glasgow working on a pupil engagement strategy in the city.

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