Pupils who have been bullied or who seek greater flexibility in their studies are combining home and college study with magical results. Lucy Ward reports STORY: It's tough being 14 and set on a career as a conjuror. You might expect more success pulling a rabbit out of a hat than persuading your school to add magic lessons to the curriculum.
But for Mark Murphy, educated at home in The Wirral by his parents, an ambition to earn a living extracting doves from thin air is on the way to being fulfilled - thanks to a local college.
Mark, in the first term of a part-time performing arts course at Wirral Metropolitan College, is one of a growing number of under-16s across the country finding that only the further education sector offers the courses and the style of learning they seek.
For Mark, a college course provided the nearest approximation to a magicians' job training scheme, something he could never have expected to find in school. Attending for two three-hour sessions each week, he is gaining experience in stagecraft, drama and composing - essentials for the David Copperfield-style shows he wants to perform.
Mark's mother Carol leaves learning decisions up to each of her four children. It is a philosophy most parents involved with Education Otherwise, the national home education group of which she is a member, share.
As her son (stage name Gerard) showed increasing promise she fought to gain him his college place before 16, eventually securing a specially-tailored arrangement once the college and Wirral education authority had worked out a means of funding "under-age" youngsters.
After seeing Mark's enthusiastic response, she is convinced of the value of part-time college study as an element of home education. "Education Otherwise is all about gaining independence, and college is marvellous for that. They meet all sorts of people of all ages and from all walks of life, which helps them towards the world of work."
Mark, who stopped attending school when he was aged 10 after an illness, says: "In school, we always had to stop a lesson just when it got interesting - here it is really intensive and you get really involved."
The study of magic has also proved an effective, if unlikely, route to a host of other subjects. Mark's maths has improved since he began learning card tricks and he uses of college drop-in classes to prepare for his GCSE. His technology skills are being tested devising and building his own props, including a table designed to make objects disappear.
Elsewhere in the North-west, 14-year-old Andrew McCafferty has turned to his local Lancashire college for help with GCSE science.
Andrew, home-educated along with his elder and younger sister, discovered the new practical element involved in the course would be unmanageable at home and enrolled at nearby Lancaster and Morecambe College.
The teenager, who has happily taught himself electronics and Spanish GCSEs, saw the year-long course as a means of getting the qualifications he needs to progress to science A-levels.
"The college is set up for flexibility, where schools are not," says his mother Jean. "Andrew always keeps himself busy at home, but it suited him to attend part-time. The lecturers have accommodated his needs."
The 14-year-old's fellow students are all at least two years older, but his parents feel home education has prepared him to mix happily with any age group. Lessons themselves, meanwhile, are an interesting novelty, though the concentration required to complete a course in a year - in a contrast to school methods - suits Andrew's experience of focusing on a few subjects in depth.
Funding, as for the Murphys, has come from the education authority. Lancashire County Council insists it will continue to treat each case on its merits, although Education Otherwise members foresee greater reluctance if numbers opting for college over school increase.
Jean says: "Colleges are offering a service that lots of 13 and 14-year-olds who get fed up with school could benefit from. I can see colleges having an increasing role for this age group."