At the cutting edge

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Wondering what alternatives there are to exclusion? From August education authorities will be able to buy into a charity scheme already claiming success south of the border, as Seonag MacKinnon reports

Pulling a knife in the classroom the day before was not Andrew's most helpful contribution towards his declared aim of becoming a pilot. The young would-be aviator was promptly excluded from school and sent for an assessment interview at Rathbone CI, a charity which specialises in turning round the type of troubled and troublesome child who sometimes drives teachers into early retirement.

A short while later he's on part-time work placement with ground staff at Manchester Airport. The rest of the time he does back at school, suddenly with the motivation to graft. He is now focused and working his way towards flying-related work.

This kind of approach with disaffected 14 to 16-year-olds will be introduced to Scotland from August as it follows England with pilot schemes of alternatives to exclusion. Rathbone, which already operates with young people in centres all over Britain and has won national and regional awards from the National Training Awards Council, is likely to be a major player. Its Choices for Life scheme hinges on "tasters" of work and the assignment of personal "streetwise" vocational advisers who act as motherfather mentorconfessors. Their role can even include driving over to a boy's home and getting him out of bed.

The Scottish Office is putting up Pounds 3 million over three years for the scheme. Local authorities will have to bid for a share - the maximum allowed per council is Pounds 150,000. Decisions will be announced next Saturday.

South of the border, Rathbone claims an 85 per cent success rate in helping young people into a training course, college or job, or to slot back into school. It costs Pounds 30,000 to turn round the majority in a group of 25 - figures which appeal to cash-strapped authorities facing soaring exclusions as schools come under pressure to score well in league tables, and teachers who see their attempts to teach a whole class thwarted by one or two unruly bods.

Officially, Scotland does not witness the same soaring number of exclusions as England. (Permanent exclusions in Scotland in 1996: 30 primary, 155 secondary. Temporary exclusions: seven half-days for every 100 primary pupils, 96 half-days for every 100 secondary pupils.) But privately, many educationists say the Scottish Office figures are laughably inaccurate, rendering cohorts of disaffected children invisible. As exclusion can carry a stigma for the child and an admission of failure on the part of the school and local authority, parents may be asked to "withdraw" their children. Schools shying away from tackling a problem or perhaps fearful of further disruption for other pupils and stressed teachers if a tearaway returns, may also just leave someone on their roll, even though they haven't seen him - and it is four times more likely to be a him - for months.

Rathbone chief executive Anne Weinstock says she has every sympathy with schools juggling unrealistic targets, meagre resources and league tables. "Most heads would like to do their best for these kids, but inevitably the most resource-intensive get left behind." The Rathbone Society, formed in 1969, has for the past 18 months been piloting the Choices for Life scheme in England.

Initially some school staff were suspicious of an outside agency aiming, as they saw it, to take pupils off their hands. They were also concerned that putting their pupils on work placements might reflect badly on the school. And some were unenthusiastic about one-day-a-week work placements cutting across the timetable, affecting up to five GCSE subjects.

But an independent Manchester Metropolitan University assessment of Choices for Life operating in the north-west of England has revealed that staff and educational social workers have become more positive about the scheme. They want to see something happen for individual pupils, even if it takes place out of school.

One teacher in the report said of a Rathbone vocational adviser: "Pupils see Mr S as a person they can relate to. He encourages a sense of the workplace and gets the need for responsibility across in a way the pupils don't resent. " A teacher at a pupil referral unit said the scheme developed perseverance in the children. An educational welfare officer commented: "It offers something to kids for whom all the other options have failed." The Manchester evaluation team found nothing but positive views of the scheme. There was, they said, "almost universal praise for taking difficult issues forward".

The scheme's effectiveness relies heavily on the staff recruited to be vocational advisers. Commerce or youth work is more likely to be on their CVs than education. They can be anything from 24 to 44-years-old. It is their ability to support and challenge young people that matters.

Coming from outside education seems to count, says Amanda Stark, the society's development officer for Scotland. "Clients believe people like careers officers have an M S chargecard in their bags. They don't identify with them. They are anti any kind of authority. They are far more likely to listen to their vocational adviser saying 'Get a grip. Get a life'." The vocational adviser's first task is to listen and find the way to reach individual clients and form a bond with them.

A typical background of clients, says Anne Weinstock, is single-parent mother, five to six siblings, two or three of whom have spent time in care, dad not known, no money, poor housing and the only people they know with legally held jobs are their teachers. Often the vocational adviser is the first person to have been there for them, one-to-one, in a long stable relationship.

Some clients are aggressive with almost tangible brick walls around them. Some hang on to the adviser's coat tails all day. An abused boy who used to attend a Skillseekers scheme for 16 to 18-year-olds at the Rathbone Centre in Motherwell would continually stand and move with his back against walls.

Anne Weinstock stresses that, however much the vocational advisers sympathise with a young person's background, they are not paralysed by it. "There's no point in loving and cuddling them, if there's no job at the end of it for them," she says. "We set targets for them. We make the system work for them."

Football unlocked the potential of some boys from the Midlands. They began to take an interest in literacy and numeracy after a trip to the stadiums of Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United. They were asked to write match reports, discuss the dimensions of the pitch and the size of a capacity audience. Amanda Stark says that when the boys filtered back to school, teachers asked whether they were the same pupils.

Careers officers have reported that pupils are often less hostile or passive after joining the scheme. They say they stop sitting around, saying nothing or speaking only to rule out options or to come out with the familiar remark: "I don't know why I'm here."

The practical approaches of Rathbone's vocational advisers take many forms. The pupil could be the third generation in his family never to have held a job, so advisers will speak with parents or siblings who may be dismissive of the boy trying for a future. As clients often can't work out bus numbers and bus timetables, they will travel with them to build up those skills. They also liaise with other agencies such as school, police, social workers, the juvenile justice system and employers. They may set up a college interview and prepare clients who need to learn such basics as the need to be on time and to sit up and look directly at the interviewer. Some have had such poor parenting that they have to be taught hygiene basics - a girl may turn up for an interview with trowel-deep make-up and a jacket that could have walked there itself.

Work placement offers come from high street names, such as Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Safeway, as well as from small employers.

The charity's Motherwell manager, Jim Andrews, applauds the new plan to offer support to youngsters in Scotland as young as 14. "These are smashing kids who can do a lot if they get the support they need to get started. But it is so much harder to reach someone if they've dropped out and spent a couple of years bumming about the streets with no one influencing them but others doing the same thing."

Amanda Stark confirms that miracles don't happen overnight. "We build them up little by little, setting them new targets. You can see them gradually turning from bad boys into young men."

The report is available from Professor D Hustler, Manchester Metropolitan University, Didsbury School of Education Research Centre, 799 Wilmslow Road, Manchester M20 2RR. Tel: 0161 247 2319

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