A chance to win over the disaffected
It is more than two years since schools were first allowed to excuse - the technical term is "disapply" - selected key stage four pupils from parts of the national curriculum. During this period, vocational courses for 14 to 16-year-olds in FE colleges appear to have grown in popularity.
Although pupils continue to study most core and foundation subjects to GCSE level, they no longer need to follow full programmes of study in either one or two subjects chosen from design and technology, modern foreign languages and science.
Initially, from September 1998, schools could only get pupils excused if they participated in extra work-related learning. Since September 2000, the measure has been extended to include pupils wishing to spend more time on subjects where they have particular strengths or who have fallen behind the rest of their age group in the curriculum as a whole.
According to the Department for Education, about 500 schools applied to disapply pupils in 19992000 for work-re-lated learning. Since last September this figure has doubled, but the Government does not keep detailed figures showing the number of pupils disapplied in each school.
Most FE colleges have welcomed the chance to offer vocational courses to pupils who no longer study the full curriculum but the lecturers' union Natfhe says members must not be dropped in the deep end and ordered to teach disaffected youngsters without adequate preparation.
Dan Taubman, a national official at Natfhe, says lecturers have contacting anting to know whether they are required to hold qualified teacher status in order to teach 14 to 16-year- olds. He was told by the DFEE that this is not necessary when education takes place on college premises - but that does not reduce the need for training.
"These are schoolchildren who may well have multiple problems," he says. "Our members want to do their best but they require training and support which I expect isn't always there."
Colleges should carry out police checks on lecturers who teach students aged under 19, but this is not always the case for staff who mainly teach adults and may come into contact with 14 to 16-year-olds on an ad-hoc basis. Neither Ofsted nor the Further Education Funding Council inspect courses run in colleges for key stage four pupils.
Jim Donaldson, the FEFC's chief inspector, says vocational programmes run by colleges for 14 to 16 - year-olds appear to be more formalised than in the past and have closer links with the curriculum. But they are outside the FEFC's inspection framework.
"It's in the college's best interest to make a good showing in front of what is their seedcorn for the future," he adds. "Hopefully the interest of students will be captured."
Three years ago, the House of Commons education and employment committee called on schools, colleges and local education authorities to set up local forums which would devise schemes to stimulate disaffected youngsters.
Peter Chalke, vice-chairman of the Local Government Association's education executive, says such schemes are a good idea whether they are formalised or not.
"Schools don't have a monopoly on education," he says. "Anything which sells education to disaffected youngsters must be good."