Michael Duffy visits a school which has enlisted the help of local colleges and built NVQs into its programme
Glaisdale School is a 650-pupil 11 to 16 comprehensive on the western edge of Nottingham. Externally it is very much a 1950s school, with generous buildings on a generous site, but it serves two large housing estates which are still predominantly council owned and it has been hard hit by the 1990s.
Unemployment in the ward is 30 per cent, and much higher for young men; only 35 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds are in full time further education and most of the rest are unemployed. Inevitably some of this feeds through into the school. Absence, much of it parentally condoned, hinders many children's progress and the level of permanent exclusions is rising. Last year's GCSE results show only 10 per cent of pupils with five or more grades A-C - slightly down on last year's figures.
As headteacher David Higgins wryly says, that is a too familiar picture. "But some of our pupils come from homes where no one has been in full-time employment for 15 years. We have to begin to tell our young people that they are going to work, even if they have to generate their own employment - and that the key is training in skills."
That's a message, he says, that Glaisdale's curriculum must reflect. Since 1994, and with the help of local colleges, the school has built National Vocational Qualification options into key stage 4. The aim, according to Jan Irlam, who co-ordinates the scheme, is to improve student morale and performance.
Three city colleges are involved. On Friday afternoons the key stage 4 timetable is blocked to provide either a range of 36-week college-taught NVQ units (level one in business administration, painting and decorating and hairdressing, level two in engineering) or a choice of community service, outdoor pursuits, or a GCSE short course in information technology.
In year 11 the choice is reversed, so that students who missed out on vocational courses at 14 can have a second go. In the rest of their timetable they take a core of English, maths and single science (three hours each) and have one hour for each of PE, religious studies, health education and PSE. Outside the core there is a three-hour GCSE top-up option (basically extra science with French) and two three-hour free choice options.
In national curriculum terms this has its problems. Currently, technology is optional, and not all students take a free-standing IT course - the school is keeping its fingers crossed where IT across the curriculum is concerned.
Similarly, not all students take a modern foreign language: the top-up option includes a combined course (community, outdoor and practical education) for students for whom Youth Award accreditation is seen as a more realistic target than another GCSE. In the best of worlds, the school would address these omissions by replacing the present top-up option with compulsory French and technology and providing instead a range of supplementary courses set against the existing vocational provision. Unfortunately it's very far from the best of worlds where the county's budget is concerned, and though the originally promised draconian cuts now look merely manageable they still represent a third consecutive real terms cut and they bite into the school's capacity to respond.
"Our real priority," the headteacher says, "has to be to hang on to what we've got."
That won't be easy. Though the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority includes NVQs among its recommended key stage 4 solutions, neither they nor the National Council for Vocational Qualifications have addressed the issue of their cost. Pat Morgan-Webb, principal of Clarendon College, Nottingham, and a key partner in the Glaisdale scheme, is enthusiastic about the school's initiative and charges only her actual teaching costs. But when transport, accreditation and Jan Irlam's time is added, vocational courses cost the school an extra Pounds 25,000 a year. Discounted fares from Nottingham City Transport and grants in cash and kind from other sponsors go some way to close this gap, but they don't provide a basis for rational long-term planning.
On the ground, though, reactions are very positive. Students taking the vocational options span the school's full ability. Every Friday they bus across the city, change out of uniform, and merge into the freedoms and responsibilities of college life.
Wendie Clinkscale, who runs the hairdressing link courses at Clarendon College, is impressed. "It's as though they grow two years older, just by walking through the door." Lisa Gray, busy logging new skills in her portfolio (washing, blow drying, colouring, neutralising) says, "It's because you get treated older" and the work being done by students such as Lee Howard (shampooing an elderly client) and Clare Savage and Emma Brierley (handling bookings and payments at reception) lends substance to that view.
In the business suite, Craig Bradley, who is taking a full range of GCSEs in addition to the four NVQ part I business units he hopes to accumulate this year, was thoughtful about the differences between them. "This course helps me to learn - and to get on with other people. I can complete it when I leave. It will lead to a better job, I hope."
The colleges clearly have an interest. Students who complete the various level one assessments have them recorded in their Records of Achievement and gain credit for them at enrolment post-16. They enjoy their work (even during school half terms they average 75 per cent attendance) and back in school they act as ambassadors for what FE can offer. It's not surprising, therefore, that Pat Morgan-Webb describes Clarendon's participation as "a loss leader for the college". She and Jan believe, however, that the partnership is of more than institutional interest. The city's stay-on-rate, post-16, is below the national figure. If college based, work related courses are likely to improve it, there is a national funding problem to be tackled.
After four terms of the project the school's experience is encouraging. About half the year group take vocational courses, but attendance in year 10 is up by four per cent, and there have been no permanent exclusions. "There is a sense of greater maturity around the place," Jan Irlam thinks. "Even in year 7, you hear kids saying: 'I'm going to do engineering at the college in year 10. ' They're thinking more about where they're going."
David Higgins is cautiously optimistic. There is enough evidence, he thinks, to justify introducing short course extension studies in school, as well as a vocational option. He is discussing with college principals the feasibility of city-wide accreditation of work experience and community service against GNVQ requirements, and is greatly encouraged by moves that the 11 to 16 heads in the city have made to set up a forum of collective experience and good practice over the whole area of key stage 4 curriculum. In the meantime, though, he wants to make sure that potential benefits of curriculum change are discussed and shared by all his staff. And that the budget can afford it. And that the results improve.