Another view - I would have felt like a rat not giving Jimmy a second chance

16th April 2010 at 01:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

Although you may never see one, you are never far from a rat. Apparently, there are 40 million in Britain and the number is growing.

In further education you might say the same about cuts. Possibly the numbers are not so high and no education cut that I know of is likely to come up your toilet and bite you on the bum. But all of a sudden, cuts are everywhere, and the threat they pose is growing.

Adult courses in particular are at the top of the cuts list; and as I teach mostly adults these days I'm sitting up and taking notice. My college has not been hit as hard as some, but that doesn't stop me worrying about the access course I run for students interested in social sciences and the arts.

While recruitment is buoyant and last year's stats were good, this time round the student drop-out rate has been higher. Maybe I'm being alarmist but, to me, this says that next year, numbers are going to be all- important if I'm to avoid appearing on the dreaded "at risk" spreadsheet.

So, setting out to interview this year's cohort, I told myself: no gambles. Go for the certs. Those who have shown they can perform at this level. Add to that the ones with easy lives, few commitments, an equitable temperament and a stable home life.

That all seems straightforward. But is it? Quite apart from the problem of finding such paragons in sufficient numbers, in following a policy like that you are in danger of excluding the very people the course was set up for in the first place: the genuine "second chancers". Certainly, that was what I found once I set out to implement it. Because along came Jimmy.

Jimmy was a gamble in anybody's money. After an early adoption and a period in a residential school, he'd left school at 15 with no formal qualifications. At some point he'd discovered welding. No one gave him any training, but he had an aptitude for the work and learnt it. Soon he was earning good money.

But the money wasn't enough. There was another side to Jimmy that simply wasn't satisfied by exercising his welding skills and bringing home the dosh. In his spare time he was reading anything he could get his hands on: history, sociology, even a bit of philosophy.

I got to know this because Jimmy told me. He turned up for his interview dressed in his best clothes and scared out of his wits. He told me how scared he was, too. He was nearly 30 now, and after being out of formal education for 15 years, the world of classrooms and teachers was about as daunting as it could be.

I asked him to write a short essay on a sociological theme. After a few relevant paragraphs he veered off on a personal track that was only marginally on task. But while his essay-writing skills were clearly rusty, he could write fluently and correctly - too fluently and too correctly for the pre-access course that might have been offered as an alternative.

Jimmy had the potential all right. He had the motivation, too. And as a white, working-class male, he was also in a group very much under- represented on such courses in inner-city London colleges. But still there was that little voice of doubt speaking in my ear. For all his enthusiasm, would it be enough to carry Jimmy through a difficult year? And if it didn't, what would that mean for my figures come the day of reckoning?

I took a deep breath. "Jimmy," I said, "I'd like to offer you a place on the course. It will be a gamble for both of us, but I think it is one we should both take."

And how could I have done otherwise? How could I have told Jimmy that, once again, he wasn't good enough to be educated? Cuts, like rats, may be everywhere, but were I to have made Jimmy a victim of them, who would have been the rat then?

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