Flower power

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Working in a garden centre has transformed Karl Smith's education.

Susannah Kirkman reports on an innovative scheme helping disaffected young people.

After highly successful work experience at Wyevale garden centre in North Waltham, Hampshire, 15-year-old Karl Smith is about to start a horticulture course at the prestigious Sparsholt College. He now has a promising future as a landscape gardener, despite being permanently excluded from school when he was 13.

Karl, from South Ham near Basingstoke, received a second chance thanks to Shaw Trust's young people's service, which organised the work placement as part of Basingstoke School Plus, a ground-breaking centre that works closely with eight secondary schools. It provides education for 14 to 16-year-olds with special needs or those who have been permanently excluded: 61 pupils attend.

The Shaw Trust, a national charity which provides employment services for disabled people, helped 587 young people last year. Many of them have been excluded from school or have emotional, behavioural or social difficulties.

Karl first started getting into trouble at school for losing his temper when he was just nine. Repeated suspensions followed. His parents have recently discovered that he had an eye condition which makes it hard for him to decipher certain letters and numbers.

"He'd get behind with his school work, get teased and then lose it," says his father, Graham Smith. "He was getting into so much trouble, I was convinced he'd be inside by 16. Instead, he's unrecognisable. He's positive, calmer and he's got a goal to aim for. We're thrilled with him."

Karl admits: "I was a bit of a troublemaker, but I started off gardening and it's built from there. Now it's easier to keep my temper, and I'm determined to crack it altogether."

The secret of the Shaw Trust's success is simple but very effective: discover each student's strengths and interests and then kindle that spark.

Karl has kept his family in flowers and vegetables since he was first given his own small garden plot at the age of 11.

As soon as Louise Sargent and Margaret McCarthy, the Shaw Trust's placement officers, learnt about Karl's enthusiasm for gardening, they looked for an opening at a garden centre. Karl started working at Wyevale for half a day a week, but his talent and commitment meant that this was eventually increased to two days, plus a paid Saturday job.

Karl works on the computer, booking in deliveries, cross- checks products to meet the trading standards regulations and creates imaginative displays.

"Karl has a great attitude," says Ken Ford, Wyevale's shop manager. "He's positive and never moans, whatever job you give him. He's also much more able than he gives himself credit for."

Working at Wyevale has spurred Karl on to improve his formal qualifications, something which he had rejected before.

"Karl previously saw no value in anything educational," explains Maggie Lowe, deputy head at Basingstoke School Plus. "But he came back from his work placement and told us he had to do maths."

The school supports students with courses in IT, literacy, numeracy and anger management, and it offers help with social skills. Karl was quite shy with customers at first but he is now much more confident.

The Shaw Trust's officers based at the school provide training in employment skills and work hard to ensure the work placements are successful.

The main difference to conventional work experience schemes is that placements last until students leave school and should lead to a job, training or an apprenticeship. Nationally, 80 per cent of young people on Shaw Trust schemes progress to jobs or further training.

"We see the kids through it, particularly when things get difficult after the first three weeks," says Margaret McCarthy. Staff regularly take the students to work so that they can meet employers and nip any incipient problems in the bud.

Some young people find it difficult when they realise that work experience means starting at the bottom, according to John Burton, the head of Basingstoke School Plus. It can also take several visits to potential employers before students see something they really want to do.

Matching students to the opportunities available is a priority. When pupils first start at Basingstoke School Plus, a Shaw Trust officer will conduct a joint interview with Maggie Lowe to plan an appropriate work placement and learning programme .

"It's very important to move quickly with disaffected pupils,while they are ready for a fresh start and can see that we are offering something different," explains Ms Lowe.

Other success stories at the unit include 15 year-old Andrew, who has a work placement at a local Ford garage; he has recently been offered a full-time mechanic's post with on-the-job training by Stagecoach, the bus company.

"When they reach us, many students have reached the point where they are going nowhere, but the work placement gives them the motivation to learn new skills and the capacity to develop," explains Mr Burton. Pupils'

achievements also have a dramatic effect on their families, he says.

"When parents see their child start to move up from the bottom of the ladder, there is a huge improvement in family relationships," he says.

Tina Brown, Karl's mother, says: "I used to be worried to death about Karl, but we're thrilled how he's turning out."

Shaw Trust www.shaw-trust.org.uk

Basingstoke School Plus 01256 474005

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