It is not every day that a group of students is recommended to read a book written by Frederick West's daughter, but then the criminal mind course at Havering Sixth Form College is somewhat different from other courses.
The group of 17 teenagers, who are otherwise taking A-levels or general national vocational qualifications, was trying to decide what causes West and other psychopaths to become serial killers.
English teacher Bruna Lamanna, who recommended Anne Marie West's book, jumped at the chance to teach the extra subject when she arrived at the college earlier this term. "It's always been a fascination of mine," said Ms Lamanna, who studied criminology for her degree. "Psychopaths live in our society; students may have a healthy interest in them."
All lower-sixth students at the east London college are encouraged to take courses such as criminal mind to gain an FE award. Other subjects include the supernatural and paranormal, looking at soap operas and Who was Jack the Ripper?, as well as a wide range of sports topics.
The availability of courses largely depends upon the interests of the teachers. Playing the stockmarket, for example, is unavailable this year because a teacher who was an expert in stocks and shares left last term. "Whenever we have a new member of staff, I ask them what sort of outside interests they've got," said Peter Darwent, the college's director of complementary studies. "We don't stand much chance of motivating students if we just put staff there because a subject has got to be covered."
About 100 courses leading to the FE Award are on offer this year although timetabling difficulties mean that each student can only choose from about 70. To gain the award, students must complete a minimum of five courses over two terms and compile an action plan outlining the challenges they faced and core skills they have gained.
A challenge might consist of giving a presentation to fellow students, while skills covered by the criminal mind course include working with others, communication and problem-solving.
Students, who had earlier seen a video about American cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, were told how to distinguish between psychologists, who believe crime can be explained by genetic factors, and sociologists, who dispute that anyone is born a criminal.
Faced with Anne Marie West's account of her father's early life, students were asked to list the factors which may have contributed to him becoming a serial killer. "A lot of the killings have to do with their childhoods," said Michael Soteriou, who is taking a GNVQ in business studies. "It's the way they are brought up."
During the early 1990s Havering Sixth Form College ran a youth award scheme offering students enrichment activities in addition to academic and vocational qualifications. Two years ago this was relaunched as the FE Award, accredited by the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN), to attract Further Education Funding Council money.
A report on extra-curricular activities published by FEFC inspectors in March found that sixth-form colleges led the way over formal commitment to such provision, though the sector generally was poor at ensuring students took part. However, the study, which acknowledged students' lack of enthusiasm was also a problem, suggested that a growing trend towards accrediting out-of- classroom activities with awards was helping to increase motivation.
The first Havering students to try for the award took it over two years rather than one, which partly accounts for the low success rate. Just 75 out of 400 achieved the award last year even though about two-thirds completed the required number of courses. According to Mr Darwent, students in the upper sixth were too busy with coursework and preparing for their final exams to fill in action plans and to provide a full portfolio of evidence.
This year, the college hopes to overcome such problems by restricting the award to lower sixth-formers. About 450 students will be expected to attend lessons for three hours per week during the first two terms, with staff later acting as mentors, helping them to complete their plan and compile a portfolio of evidence.
About 50 teachers take FE Award courses, with many opting to teach more than one subject. Geography teacher Keith Oak takes a juggling class which normally leads to students being able to juggle with three balls by the end of the 10-week course.
Mr Oak admitted that he started the course because of his own ambitions: "I was given a set of balls for Christmas about four years ago and asked a local juggler to come in and take a group of students. I pretended I was teaching the students but I was really learning myself."
At the outset, students are encouraged to choose subjects which they are interested in. The skills, all of which are assessed at level two, may only be outlined to them when they complete their action plan.
Although not all lower-sixth students enrol for the award, all are urged to take some form of complementary studies. Students taking GCSEs and AS levels, as well as some GNVQ students, do not have sufficient space on their timetables for FE Award courses. "We make it as compulsory as we possibly can," said Mr Darwent.