A more relaxed way of learning

28th February 2003 at 00:00
A Prince's Trust programme that motivates disaffected pupils to stay in schools is soon to be given SQA accreditation, Eleanor Caldwell reports

The xl club room at St Joseph's College in Dumfries is a combination of cheerful commonroom, with tea and toast on offer, and bustling office. The group of eight S3 students in the room have opted into three periods a week of xl as an integral part of their course of study.

The Prince's Trust xl programme was first established in Scotland in 1999 as a curriculum option targeted at disaffected and demotivated youngsters underachieving in school. It is now running in 43 schools and has just received more than pound;615,000 from the Scottish Executive through the youth crime prevention fund.

Working on the principle of the flexible curriculum, xl is integral to course choice and designed to replace one Standard grade subject, which pupils give up with advice from their teachers. It is based on all key elements of personal and social education and the social and vocational skills curriculum, with emphasis on community and enterprise projects.

The programme links to Access 3 and Intermediate 1 PSE courses and is soon to be accredited by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. As a result, many more schools are expected to join. Completion of an xl year already gives pupils ASDAN (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) qualifications.

Those who show an interest in xl are selected on the basis of criteria set by the programme. These cover a range of issues, educational (such as isolation and alienation in school and inability to reach potential in academic study) and social (lack of parental support, truancy and lack of friends).

Marie Weir, the principal teacher of behaviour support at St Joseph's College and an xl teacher adviser, works with the school guidance team on the selection process. Occasionally, there are pupils that she hopes will show interest in xl but who do not come forward. For the most part, however, the programme attracts those who would benefit most from it.

The St Joseph's College group is small: the Prince's Trust encourages schools to recruit 12-15 students ideally. However, there is a strong sense of identity among them. They wear xl badges and are proud of their club room.

On Fridays, key issues are discussed at a working breakfast, where they are joined by two students with learning difficulties from the school's learning centre.

The current xl enterprise project has extended last year's production of painted glassware to decorative glass snow globes.

The group's recent anti-litter campaign was a "terrific success" on a school level, says headteacher Jacques Chezeaud, and it received council support. xl student Ryan Kearney said it made him "feel older, being involved in organising and raising money for the bins".

School departments increasingly call on the group for assistance in projects. Home economics asked them to design and produce posters for a breakfast club; they also manned a stall at a local dance festival on behalf of the PE department. They are key participants in school social events.

One benefit of the xl programme, says Mr Chezeaud, is that the pupils are not only attending events but fronting them as confident representatives of the school.

"We never write anyone off here and I'm extremely proud of these young folk," he says.

Tolerance levels at St Joseph's have always been high, he explains, but the number of serious problems and the exclusion rate have dropped since the introduction of the xl programme. Students are enjoying improved relationships with teachers because of their increased self-esteem.

"We talk to each other properly now," says one girl, "because the teachers know we're not just out to cause trouble and we're used to working as a team."

The xl club room at St Joseph's College is open to other pupils at break and lunch times and several S1s and S2s come in to play the PlayStation or just relax, particularly some of the quieter ones.

The Prince's Trust recommends that schools allow a start-up fund of pound;200 to buy basic xl materials and it pays for two days of training for xl advisers and for student portfolios, on CD-Rom and paper, with details of the programme and self-assessment records.

Mrs Weir, who also teaches English, says she has learned a lot about the xl pupils through the programme. "The most important thing is that these youngsters have more confidence to work well in other subjects and have a whole new sense of self-esteem."

Kelly Wood, xl Network Co-ordinator, The Princes Trust Scotland, The Guildhall, 57 Queen Street, Glasgow G1 3EN, tel 0141 225 3381 www.princes-trust.org.uk

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