Crossing gang boundaries has stopped youths in deprived areas from improving their education
As a new report showed that widening access to learning in deprived areas remains as intractable a goal as ever, gang culture has emerged as an unexpected impediment.
Travelling was simply too dangerous for many people in these areas, according to Gordon Shaw, the head of Lochend Community High in Glasgow's Easterhouse. His message for further education, delivered at a conference on lifelong learning last week, was that colleges had therefore to make their courses and services available more locally.
Mr Shaw said many barriers stood between youngsters living in Easterhouse and higher or further education. For some, it was about a lack of positive role models to emulate, or a lack of money. But others were virtual prisoners in their small communities because of gang culture. "Parents won't let their children go on work experience because they have to get two buses and cross three gang boundaries," he said.
Colleges and universities must begin to recognise these issues if more youngsters were to have access, Mr Shaw continued. "Territorialism means youngsters have real concerns about personal safety. There need to be other ways of making contact, like satellite provision where further education is brought into communities."
The distance still to be travelled to make a reality of lifelong learning was underlined in a progress report on the "Learning for All" strategy initiated by the Scottish Funding Council, which jointly hosted last week's conference along with the National Union of Students Scotland.
Also entitled Learning for All, the report tracked the changes in widening participation between 2004 and 2006 and found that the gap between the schools least likely to send pupils into higher education - the bottom 20 per cent - and the rest had widened. While staying-on rates at college and university remained high, students from more deprived backgrounds and with lower attainment were still more likely to drop out.
Mr Shaw also outlined other issues confronting lifelong learning. Over 40 per cent of people living in the east Glasgow Community Health and Care Partnership were classed as "income deprived", and half of children lived in households where no one worked.
"The east end of the city has the highest rate of looked-after and accommodated children in Glasgow," Mr Shaw added, "and 10 per cent are looked after as a direct result of lack of parental care. We have a generation of parents who, because of drug addiction or alcohol abuse, don't know what parenting is."
In his own school, which has 800 pupils, over 40 act as carers for a parent.
On the other side of the coin, however, staying-on rates at Lochend have increased by 30 per cent in three years and attendance is 8 per cent above the national average. When they leave school, 82 per cent of pupils move on to a place in education, training or work.
Mr Shaw praised the local college, John Wheatley College (26 per cent of Lochend pupils enter further education), which last year won the Queen's Anniversary Prize for further and higher education in recognition of its record of tackling disadvantage.
"Youngsters and parents have a real affinity with the college," Mr Shaw said. "It's an integral part of the community."
The connections between the school and college through the Youthstart programme, which offers vocational courses to S4 pupils, were also vital, he added.
But Mr Shaw called for youngsters from areas such as Easterhouse to be as well supported in college and university as they are in school, where "strong pastoral care teams go above and beyond the call of duty."
Funding should be targeted at the most "deprived datazones", he suggested, and access programmes such as GOALS (greater opportunities for access and learning with schools) must face rigorous assessment to ensure they provided value for money.
"Every year group at Lochend has involvement in GOALS and I think it's beneficial, but gut feelings are not enough when it comes to significant spending," Mr Shaw commented.
According to James Alexander, president of the NUS Scotland, increasing access depended on raising aspirations and improving financial support. He challenged delegates to live off pound;4,000 a year - the average income for a student.
However, he told the conference, widening access was not just about young disadvantaged Scots. Mature and disabled learners and those with families should also have the opportunity to study, he said.
In her address, Fiona Hyslop, the Education and Lifelong Learning Secretary, announced a move intended to make it easier for those in work to add to their skills: individual learning accounts are to be extended to include 16 and 17-year-olds and work-related courses.
She said: "This has to be about changing the system. Rather than widening access, we have to widen the mainstream - access should not be peripheral but integral."
ROBERT BLYTH was in the bottom set in S3, a class that was "unteachable", according to Gordon Shaw, his headteacher at Lochend Community High in Glasgow.
"They were only able to be taught by the senior management team and a behaviour support teacher," he said. "This class wasn't allowed to move around the building like a normal class; they stayed put and teachers came to them."
However, Robert was among the first pupils to take part in Youthstart, a programme run by the school and John Wheatley College, offering vocational courses to S4 pupils, and, through a cookery course, he discovered his talent.
He went on to study professional cookery full-time and is training as a sous-chef at Gleneagles Hotel, an effort rewarded in 2006 when he was named college candidate of the year in the Scottish Qualifications Authority awards. But later this year comes the ultimate accolade: he has been asked to return to his old school - to present the prizes.