ASK DIRECTIONS to Walworth School in south London and you will either be told it is at the back of the Thomas a Beckett public house on the Old Kent Road or that it is opposite the new Tesco's, writes Stephen Hoare.
Both are true. But the different viewpoints reflect the area's split personality. In the Sixties the pub was a focus for the community - made famous by boxing champion Henry Cooper who trained in a ring in the Beckett's upstairs room. In the Nineties, the supermarket draws the crowds as housing developments spring up and pockets of dereliction are bulldozed and cleared.
This term, for the first time, construction is on offer for the pupils of Walworth School. Fourteen Year 11s are studying for a National Vocational Qualification level 1 at nearby Vauxhall College. The option is evidence of the growing desire to broaden the curriculum.
Mae Dyson, Walworth's head of vocational education, explains: "I'm trying to come up with opportunities for children who are not five A-C material and give them real alternatives - not pretend ones."
With a catchment area that includes north Peckham's Aylesbury Estate - said to be the most deprived local authority housing in Europe - getting children into work is one of the school's biggest priorities.
Learning building skills is a happy choice. First, a lot of jobs are going begging on building sites right on the school's doorstep. Half a dozen of the Year 11s on this year's round of work-experience placements have been offered apprenticeships with local construction companies as soon as they leave school at 16. Second, the link with the local college is set up and sponsored by the Construction Industry Training Board as part of its schools' curriculum initiative.
The school also has a number of other non-GCSE courses - notably a bronze award in health and social care offered by ASDAN, the award scheme development and accreditation network. The scheme's courses involve work experience. Its half-termly modules are self-contained and build up into something that pupils and employers see as being relevant to the world of work.
Walworth School is not the first in the London borough of Southwark to go for construction. Highshore and Spa School, both all-through special needs, have also introduced it. Construction work ties in with the modified national curriculum these schools are following, offering something worthwhile for pupils whose level of attainment is below the minimum needed for GCSE.
Although the NVQ is beyond most special needs pupils, the key skills element of the vocational course has a lot going for it. And the link with Vauxhall College could provide a path from school into further education for the more able and motivated special needs children. Nick Dry, deputy head at Spa, explains: "We have taken skills modules from the NVQ and have got them accredited for an ASDAN bronze award, which is the best these kids are capable of. They'll also be able to build up a record of achievement in key skills and they will have gone part way to getting an NVQ level 1."
All of Spa's Year 11 pupils are following vocational courses which take them away from the school at least one day a week. Besides building skills, youth work and health and social care are also on offer - all for ASDAN awards. Many of the pupils also sit the certificate of education in maths, science and English from the Welsh Examining Board, which addresses key skills.
But key skills were on offer as long ago as 1988 when Walworth School, like other secondaries in the borough, set up a world of work department to develop vocational education. The school scored an early success by offering a newly created GCSE double option in business and information studies piloted by the National Design and Technology Foundation in association with the old University of London exams board.
In the first year the double option was offered, 70 per cent of pupils achieved A-Cs, and the numbers taking it shot up from 30 in the first year to 120 the next. Ms Dyson says: "They were learning to use the IT they'd need in the real world and the skills they need for running their own businesses. "
The introduction of the national curriculum a year later saw this vocational GCSE scrapped and replaced by single subjects in business and IT. The pass rate plummeted to 25 per cent. "The national curriculum is for academic children, said Ms Dyson. "It bears no relationship to the world of work."
Now, with construction on offer, things are looking up. If Walworth's and Spa's track records are anything to go by, many more Southwark schools will be looking to get their more vocationally-minded pupils to don hard hats.