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Real lessons in a virtual world

Chrissie Garrett enthuses about the Virtual College, a scheme she set up for school refusers. Youngsters are given laptops to keep them in touch with their tutors, who use the technology to supplement their five hours of face-to-face contact a week. But the laptops also show disaffected youngsters that if they can be trusted with equipment that has street cred - not to mention resale value - then the Virtual College is showing them respect and deserves some in return.

"For all these students, the system has failed," says Garrett. "All some needed was an opportunity with an adult who believed in them and could help them take the next step."

The Virtual College is just one aspect of Garrett's job. She took the reins of the University of the First Age from Maggie Farrar last year. She is excited as the university nears its move into the Millennium Point education centre.

The university's activities have expanded hugely since opening in 1994 with pound;20,000 of the pound;90,000 Tim Brighouse won from John Patten who, as Education Secretary, libelled him by calling him "a nutter". More instrumental in spreading the university's ideas was the pound;4.6 million from publisher and Labour party benefactor Paul Hamlyn, whose money paid for training the university's fellows, the precursors of today's advanced skills teachers.

The university, which is aimed mainly at 11 to 14-year-olds, is trying to supplement the national curriculum's prescriptive formula which, says Brighouse, is unbalanced and incoherent. The aim is to stimulate children through the seven areas of intelligence identified by HowardGardner (see story left). That way they all get a fair crack of the whip.

Immersion days, accelerated learning, learning in the community - these are the buzzwords in Birmingham. It's about a return to child-centred education.

For now, the university operates from an office it shares with the housing department in Newtown, where 35 full-time staff get through an astonishing range of work. Garrett lists a string of activities that the university is involved in. These include: the Young People's Parliament, developing curriculum materials for key stage 3, supporting the Excellence in Cities programme designed to raise educational standards in urban areas, summer literacy programmes, Aim High outdoor activities to train people to work with their own ethnic groups, and the Young Citizen's College, which brings students from all over Europe together on residential courses.

At its heart, though, is Howard Gardner's multi-sensory teaching approach. "We're demonstrating to schools that you don't all have to teach in the same way to get results," says Garrett. "You can deliver languages in one year and children can get results.

"You don't have to do a curriculum that is so structured around national curriculum subjects that there is no transference of skills between one and the other. I mean, they learn the water cycle in school eight times - the same thing eight times. That's potty."

Today, Birmingham's example is being followed. The Academy of Youth, the university's parent body, is contracted to the DFEE to open similar organisations in 15 other other authorities .

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