Falklands finishing school ... in Sussex

2nd November 2007 at 00:00

Teenagers from the islands travel 8,000 miles to England to complete their studies. Joseph Lee reports. For all new students, college means new experiences. But at Chichester College, each year brings a group of students who face more novelty than most.

This particular group comes from the Falkland Islands and many have never seen a train or walked up an escalator. They have never lived among more than 3,000 people and have only ever seen a handful of trees. Most surprising, they marvel at how hot the weather is in England.

Home for them is a tiny community on a windswept group of islands 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic, served by just one commercial flight a week.

For some of the students, it is their first journey away from home when they come to complete their studies in the UK, taking either A-levels at Peter Symonds Sixth Form College across the county border in Winchester or learning vocational subjects at Chichester College.

The two colleges are unusual in offering accommodation on campus for overseas students. So when the 16-year-olds back home outgrow the one secondary school and limited vocational training centre in Port Stanley, this is where they come.

Andy Felton, 17, who studies music, said: "The first thing that hit me was that there were loads of trees, it was a lot hotter and there are lots of people. There's more people just on this campus than there are at home."

The students have taken to the attractions of the UK. One spent pound;600 on shoes in his first month, according to friends. Others are taking the chance to explore the country.

Marcus Porter is in his second year of a diploma in pop music performance and took a trip to London. "The Underground was so cramped and sweaty I thought I was going to have a panic attack," he said. "I'd rather walk."

There are 25 Falkland Islands students at Chichester this year - the highest number ever recruited by the college. Skills are in high demand among the small population, particularly as the islanders seek to develop their tourist industry, fuelled partly by interest in wildlife, from sea lions to its million-strong penguin population.

The students said vocational skills were seen as a better way of getting ahead than A-levels and a degree. Geoff Loftus, 23, on an intensive three- month advanced construction course, said: "With vocational qualifications, there is always work. Other people go away to university and come back and are still stacking shelves. There's only so many managers that you need."

And though skills are in high demand due to the small population on the islands, the students are given complete freedom in choosing courses - from construction or travel and tourism to performing arts and pop music.

Each course is paid for by England's Learning and Skills Council, since the islanders are also British citizens. But their living expenses are funded by the self-sufficient Falklands government, as long as they first earn the equivalent of four C grades and a B at GCSE.

The sponsorship means their accommodation is paid for and they receive a grant of pound;50 a week, along with two flights home a year. It can extend for as long as they continue to progress to higher levels of education, right up to postgraduate study. There is no obligation on students to return home when their studies are complete but many do.

The teenagers say the freedom of home is one of the things they miss most about the Falklands. Among other things, this freedom means underage drinking at "two-nighters", long parties out in the countryside, some of which seem to end in drink-driving accidents. But at Chichester, the under-18 students have to return to their supervised accommodation for an 11pm curfew. The college accepts it cannot entirely prevent 16- and 17- year-olds obtaining drink but it is confident that supervision prevents anything getting out of hand.

They have rarely had any trouble, according to Peter Brown, director of international operations at the college. But in some cases, the college's support systems for teenagers a long way from home are severely tested. Mr Brown recalled one boy who arrived in Chichester after his parents had split up, and they both decided they did not want him. "We basically became his surrogate parents," he said.

Most of the time parents take a keen interest. Mr Brown said: "Because of mobile phones, the Falkland Islands knows about things even before I do, so we have to stay on our toes.

"We try to offer the same service that we would to our home students, but in a way the parents are even more involved because they're so far away. We get emails saying `He's not answering his phone. Can you check he's OK?'"

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