Students once written off as failures have been given a new lease of life thanks to an adventurous approach to the curriculum. Guy Wilkinson reports.
DISAFFECTED teenagers once destined for the dole are now aiming to go to university, thanks to a radical course that tore up the national curriculum and offered a less conventional route to success.
The teenagers dropped traditional GCSEs in favour of studies more suited to their talents and enthusiasms including music, sport, art and other practical and social activities.
The scheme was devised by staff at Lewisham College, south London, who felt that the present curriculum was too restrictive.
Lecturers reckon the success of the scheme could influence the future make-up of key stage 4 of the national curriculum.
When the scheme was launched in January 2001, the Government had proposed that at least 40,000 14 and 16-year-olds were released from school to attend vocational courses in colleges or at work.
The proposal later became policy in the 14-19 White Paper, which said students of all abilities should be helped to find courses to match their individual needs.
The Government may now be patting itself on the back, if Lewisham's success is anything to go by. A paper on the scheme has been published to launch a series of college monographs under the title "Successes that challenge the system".
The 14 to 16-year-olds on the programme, known as the K4 Partnership, came from neighbouring Telegraph Hill school, which shut after failing a number of inspections.
Lewisham College took on 40 disaffected students, with pound;150,000 from the local education authority, after attempts to revive Telegraph Hill under the Fresh Start initiative failed.
Ruth Silver, Lewisham's principal, said: "Fresh Start schools should be called last chance schools. When students get sent from a school that has closed, they feel like the absolute pits. We have to change that and show them their potential."
Students say it has given their education a new lease of life. Former Telegraph Hill pupil, Terria Chipping, said: "When we first arrived we thought in our own minds that we stood out from everyone else at the college. Now I feel as though I belong here."
It was clear to the staff at Lewisham that a new, unconventional approach was needed if young people were to be turned back on to learning. So the national curriculum was suspended under the existing government regulations and a new team was set up.
By September 2001, an alternative to the GCSE had been created, accredited by the London Open College Network and given extra support by Connexions, the police and social services.
Lecturers and support staff soon became aware of the size of the task. At first, many students were disruptive and unresponsive. But, with sustained effort, they overcame many of the difficulties and gained a better understanding of each student's background, character, personality and aspirations.
Claire Goodwin, another former Telegraph Hill pupil, said: "My previous teachers seemed as though the only reason they were there was to get paid.
This was completely different. At Lewisham, I was made to feel like an individual.
"I couldn't believe it when, after I had not come in one day, my teacher called me up to ask why I wasn't there. Suddenly I felt as though I was noticed.
"From having an F prediction in GCSE English at my last school, I predicted B at AS-level. I am also studying law and hope to continue with it at university."
As the term progressed all pupils showed significant improvements and attendance levels rose dramatically from 34 per cent at the beginning of term to 85 per cent towards the end.
Mandy Burt, who runs the scheme, said: "Because the courses are more tailor made, the students want to come in. We aim to grab their attention first thing on a Monday morning and finish the week on a high on a Friday afternoon."
A lecturer on the project team said: "By December the students had claimed us as their own. They saw us as their team and they made enormous demands on us."
As much as the alternative curriculum, it was the strong links between students and teachers that developed during this time that was to prove the foundation for the programme's ultimate success.
Those students to whom a grade C at GCSE level in one year was unthinkable were able to thrive on qualifications that allowed them to pursue their interests, whether musical, artistic, practical or social.
Of the 39 students who began the programme, 32 have moved on to some form of higher education - 29 of them at Lewisham College.
Terria Chipping was led to believe that she had little chance of further learning until she started on the programme. She is now studying subjects including law, English, psychology, politics and communications. And she is hoping to go to university.
Ruth Silver says the future of education lies in this more practical approach.
"It is high time the United Kingdom had a 21st-century further education qualification," she said. "To widen participation, you have to widen the public perception of what is acceptable."
Lewisham continues to produce its new programmes and has several more already under way. An computer training programme called Skills for Industry will be launched this term.
Ms Silver says many risks are taken under the Lewisham programmes and that these new ideas can never be guaranteed to work.
"Things don't always work here," she says. "We've had to find our own way.
We are are very innovative. We've had to be."