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The power of positive thinking

If access courses use credits successfully, FE can make them an incentive for potential GCSE failures.Jo Pickering describes the scheme at Derby Wilmorton

Many teachers in schools and FE have experienced the frustration of trying to herd reluctant Year 11 students through inappropriate courses and known that many learners are doomed to failure.

Things happen in the lives of 16-year-olds: mum leaving home tends to come above an understanding of photosynthesis, and even the mildest temptations are more appealing than the Corn Laws. But leaving school with no GCSEs carries with it a "failure" label and invokes a dissatisfaction with learning that often manifests itself as "boredom".

Trying to motivate learners who did not quite clear the canyon at the first attempt is no joke. Getting them to try again can be a frustrating process for teachers who are hamstrung by the national curriculum and squeezed by league tables, which can make for a drab learning landscape. Getting students through the syllabus becomes the sole purpose for teaching, which is no thrilling prospect for either teacher or pupil.

At Wilmorton we decided to break the mould and take a more customer-orientated approach by using "credit" as a central weapon in our armoury.

Colleges have used credit-based courses through the local Open College Network for years to help tailor courses to learners' needs. The huge success of credit-based access courses is testament to this, as is the wide range of excellent basic skills courses that are available in the sector.

But these two areas of provision focus chiefly on achievement at levels 1 and 3 - too wide a gulf for bruised learners to bridge in a single bound. Whatever their age, those who have not succeeded at school need skilled support to try again, but asking them to take huge leaps sends them running.

Using membership of the Derbyshire Regional Network (DRN) as a springboard, Derby Tertiary College: Wilmorton has ued its credit-based programmes to generate large-scale and user-friendly provision. The DRN is a credit-writing consortium of five colleges working with Derby University, which "unitised" most of the curriculums.

Wilmorton was well known locally for the Vocational Credit Programme (VCP), a tailor-made provision with maths, English, IT, care and vocational options. This programme was written for young people who struggled to achieve at school . It comprises two levels: entry level and level 1. It also serves those who have learning difficulties and gives them essential skills and a focus on work.

Kickstart is the equivalent at level 2 and replaces GCSE retakes, which are often dire as the demoralised GCSE students have to go through the whole thing again. This programme offers things young people enjoy: TV (media), role-play (drama), football (sport amp; leisure), attraction (psychology), but the skills are valuable and transferable and are readily acquired.

Cabin Crew is a programme that trains learners who are interested in a career in the air - travel, grooming, customer service. 1st Focus allows adults to practise study skills and to build their confidence in such areas as self-preservation, equal opportunities and the law.

Each course offers English, maths and IT skills, with small-group mentoring at the core of the provision. Learners may pursue their own interests and are motivated by choice. They are encouraged by graduated achievement and support as each credit is gained in small "bites". Key Skills and job prospects are enhanced, and learners can pick up and put down the courses according to their changing personal circumstances.

Progression to Derby University is ensured if learners continue to level 3 and gain sufficient credits.

Learning is more fun, widening access is easier, and this is a long way from an enforced curriculum.

Jo Pickering is a humanities lecturer at DerbyTertiary College: Wilmorton

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