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The rise of the talented school

Bog-standard comprehensives are fighting back. David Henderson reports from a landmark conference hosted by North Lanarkshire

In five to 10 years, it will be normal for pupils going into S3 to take courses in beauty therapy, plumbing or construction without going near a further education college.

As part of their S2 options, they will be able to pick groups such as English, maths, history and hairdressing, according to Michael O'Neill, North Lanarkshire's education director, addressing a national conference on "Diversity makes a Difference".

Spelling out a vision of vocational education delivered in school by retrained teachers and college lecturers, Mr O'Neill forecast far greater choice for pupils. From early secondary they could opt for groups of subjects they were interested in or for which they showed talent.

Mr O'Neill said it was time to bury the "Yellow Pearl", the curriculum guidelines developed in the 1970s that pushed pupils into specific modes of study. It was a "framework that had become a strait-jacket". From early in secondary, pupils could now begin to choose subjects or "pathways" they were most suited to.

"S2 is still a waste of time for most young people," he said.

Two years ago the authority issued its own revised draft of the guidelines, stressing flexibility and more choice without age restrictions. Mr O'Neill believed it was time to adapt the best of vocational education structures in Germany and start many young people on career paths they would follow in adult life.

"This is about vocational courses in school. This is not about sending the Christmas leavers to college to get rid of them. This is not about trying to put in place a convoluted process of bussing and timetables to send young people to college. It is about partnership with the college but delivery in school, part of the normal S2 option choice," he said.

There would be recognised qualifications and no return to junior secondaries. "It is about offering young people their own decisions, choice and following their aptitudes," Mr O'Neill said.

North Lanarkshire secondaries were already working on different ways to extend the principle of comprehensive schools, making the curriculum more relevant to many and encouraging them into further learning.

Specialist schools in sport and music were far removed from the English model which was about selection, distortion of the curriculum, competition between schools and fragmentation. North Lanarkshire's initiatives were not selective and continued to attract pupils to their local school.

"They are an enrichment for all, not elitism for the few," he said.

Mr O'Neill challenged headteachers to find money from their own budgets if they wanted to change direction or add staff to develop specific initiatives. "When you were allocated McCrone support staff money, did you think 'I might just employ a music or sports assistant or do something different or employ one more auxiliary'? he asked".

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