Construction courses mop up truants

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Training centres that teach building skills are now attracting thousands of excluded pupils from referral units. Francis Beckett reports

Excluded school pupils are being successfully trained at further education colleges for a career in the building industry, according to the latest data from the building industry.

The schemes have been so popular that, in some areas, the number of 16-year-olds emerging from programmes - backed by the Construction Industry Training Board - is enough to provide the growth needed for a hoped-for revival of the industry under Labour.

The extent of the success was spelt out at the national annual conference for the CITB Construction Curriculum Centres. The centres were set up 10 years ago to encourage better understanding of building in the school curriculum.

Schemes developed through the CITB Construction Industry Initiative involve 5,000 schools and 140 colleges. But the idea to target excluded pupils has come from referral units within local education authorities.

Most of the excluded pupils that schools and colleges failed to rescue were drifting between building sites and unemployment with no proper training, says one official. "We have managed to show them that there is more to the trade than sweeping and hod-carrying," he said.

The size of the potential workforce nationally has yet to be calculated, but most of the colleges involved report "significant" or "rising" numbers of excluded pupils being successfully trained.

Mark Curtis, head of pre-16 studies at Keighley College, said: "We are getting the kids whose teachers can't cope and whose parents aren't interested, who have horrific problems - family breakdowns, drugs, the lot."

Children who are excluded from secondary school go first to Bradford Council's pupil referral unit, which assesses what they are most interested in. Those who show a liking for the construction industry go to Keighley College.

The LEA pays Pounds 27 an hour, rising to Pounds 30 in September, for each pupil referred. This enables them to be taught in very small groups of not more than eight.

"For us, it's a commercial activity," said Mr Curtis. "You can charge Pounds 30 because you need to work in small groups."

They learn the costruction trades of brickwork, joinery and painting, with the support of CITB field officers.

"The Government is saying FE can absorb them, and at Keighley we are doing it, in conjuction with the local authority," Mr Curtis told a national conference in Cardiff for the CITB Construction Curriculum Centres.

The centres were set up in the wake of the national curriculum proposals to encourage a greater awareness among pupils of the built environment and to provide industry support for work experience.

There are now 122 centres nationwide tutoring 250,000 pupils and students each year.

The potential for excluded students is a much more recent development. "It is vital that someone handles this problem, and increasingly it will be down to the FE colleges," said Mr Curtis.

There are now 16,000 permanent exclusons from school and 100,000 temporary exclusions, according to figures from the Department for Ecuation and Employment.

One in three Year 11 pupils in Mr Curtis's catchment are playing truant at least once a week.

"Increasingly, construction curriculum centres are at the forefront of the debate about what can be done," said Mr Curtiss. "It is a challenge to the stereotype of an FE college, but it works. We have to say to schools: we welcome your low achievers."

In addition, to Pounds 7 million CITB money, the centres have attracted more than Pounds 11m from a variety of sources: local building companies, LEAs, education-business partnerships and training and enterprise councils.

Lester Greenacre, head of the CITB Training Policy Advisory Unit, told the conference that the industry gained an unfortunate image before the centres were created. Many people believed it attracted only those who could not gain the skills to do anything better.

"Ten years ago, we realised that fewer and fewer 16-year-olds were finding their way into the industry," he said. "There were more people staying at school, there were parental aspirations which directed teenagers away from construction.

"Colleges have the expertise to teach construction trades, but schools do not. And constructrion is an expensive industry to train for. Cash-strapped colleges tend to offer courses requiring less expenditure.

"So we decided that we must raise the standards of new entrants to the industry, and reduce the drop-out rate from post-16 training."

The centres set out to change the climate in which career decisions were taken.

Initiatives vary makedly across the country. In the Wirral, the centre is run by staff seconded from Wirral Metropolitan College. It is backed by Pounds 8,000 from the European Social Fund.

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