SEVERAL thousand secondary pupils may be banned from attending three East of Scotland colleges next session amid claims of "dumping" by schools.
Howard McKenzie, principal of Jewel and Esk Valley College, which has campuses in Dalkeith and the east of Edinburgh, said: "I have hard evidence that we are losing full-time students because the environment has moved from an adult situation to a school situation with running battles, spitting, graffiti and vandalism."
Along with colleagues from West Lothian College in Livingston and Edinburgh's Stevenson College, Mr McKenzie is to meet headteachers from 25 secondary schools in Edinburgh and the Lothians to explain that S3 pupils will be unable to attend after the summer for financial reasons.
Mr McKenzie said the 3,000 school pupils visiting Jewel and Esk for two to three hours at a time this year attracted the same amount of funding as 15 students doing a full-time HND programme. "The amount of resources required is nowhere near to being matched by payback," he said.
He added: "With regard to S4 and S5 pupils, we are increasingly finding that people who have behavioural or attendance problems, or are just bored, are tending to find themselves dumped on us.
"I don't blame the schools and would do the same if I were in their position. All the tools for disciplining and controlling students have been systematically taken away from them. It must be impossible to resist the temptation to send these youngsters somewhere else."
Mr McKenzie insisted that it was not the job of colleges to provide supervision, but to maintain an adult environment (only 31 per cent of colleges' activity in 2001-02 involved under-18s). "We can have an enormous impact on pupils, and coming to college is a very worthwhile thing for them," he said.
"However, some cannot behave in the right way and are undecided about their futures, and we have to deal with that by moving back to the old school link process in which they come for specific vocational skills linked to qualifications. In that way we think we can put some discipline back into the place."
As an example of where the college's future priorities will lie, he cited a group of 15 pupils from four different secondaries studying catering one day a week. "They are a tidy, clean, well-behaved group of students who pass 100 per cent on their SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) unit because they are motivated and focused."
Mr McKenzie added: "I have five applicants for every place in childcare training. Meanwhile Edinburgh needs about 700 nursery nurses a year and the colleges are producing about 500.
"So there is a skills shortage which we are currently powerless to meet because we don't have the means to deliver more training. Resources which are freed up from dealing with school pupils can be devoted to this type of area."
Ros Micklem, principal of Cardonald College in Glasgow and chair of the principals' forum of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said: "It's very clear that the expectation is for closer links and really strong relationships between colleges and schools.
"I think most principals welcome that as long as the strengths of both sectors are recognised, and it is acknowledged that FE is vocational education and not a second choice option for people who can't make it down the academic route or think of anything else to do.
"Things can go wrong, and you get schools believing that the colleges are an easy way of getting students off the premises, while some colleges expect pupils to have a certain level of motivation and ability and are being well geared up for the kind of pupils who actually arrive.
"At Cardonald, we have had experience of pupils being selected inappropriately, people who couldn't cope with being in an adult environment, and in those cases we had to say that it wasn't in anyone's interest to continue. But that is the exception rather than the rule.
"There are lots of constructive ways in which colleges can offer a more diverse and motivating curriculum to school pupils if we plan and prepare jointly, and maintain good communication."
Ms Micklem stressed the concern of colleges, along with Careers Scotland and local enterprise companies, for the so-called NEET group of 16-19s who are not in education, employment or training (14 per cent of the age group).
"Sometimes we feel that school pupils would benefit from taking a vocational rather than an academic route," she said. "But we are not always sure that they are getting the best advice.
"It's a shame for those kids if we cut off those opportunities. FE is a different environment where they are doing practical things that they find exciting and which they can see might lead them into a job. It can really motivate people who have switched off."