Lancashire pupils are benefiting from the less rigid approach of vocational training at Runshaw College
Wearing your own clothes and calling the teachers by their first name are obvious inducements for any Year 10 student to go part-time to the local college. For their school teachers, the organisational headaches involved are compensated by the higher aspirations and wider horizons that their pupils develop.
At Runshaw College about 50 pupils from six secondary schools are doing GCSE Engineering and National Vocational Qualifications under the Government's Increased Flexibility Programme (IFP) to give 14 to16-year-olds access to vocational education.
Every Friday morning the GCSE group members work at the college, in Leyland, Lancashire, on their double award. The NVQ students spend two days a week in college and with other training providers, such as local businesses, following programmes in business administration, hairdressing and beauty, catering and hospitality and customer service and retailing.
The study of engineering requires sound mathematical ability, so this group, of which more than a quarter are girls, was targeted for their ability to get five A*-C grades at GCSE. The NVQ programme is for students with attendance issues and less motivation to stay in school for GCSEs.
After a term and a half, the engineering students are enjoying the less formal atmosphere at college and the opportunity to use equipment that is not available at school. And it has helped to clarify their thoughts on what to do next.
For Michael Mason of Bishop Rawstorne Language College, the first goal was to become an RAF avionics technician. But after a visit to an engineering firm he has seen other possibilities. He says: "I'd like to work in a company like that because the people there liked the job they were doing.
One person had been an apprentice, and I could do that too."
Bishop Rawstorne assistant head Martin Carr has seen a real change in attitude in the NVQ group at the language college: "They have all improved immeasurably in their attendance and relationships in the school. And when they leave they are more likely to look for a job with training."
Runshaw College wants to create an academy of engineering by expanding its present matrix of Level 1-3 courses up to Level 4 (degree). Students would have more choice of progression routes from their own starting level to A-level, Modern Apprenticeships, foundation and honours degrees.
The IFP agreement between the college, the schools and the training providers took eight months to plan but it was worth it, Mr Carr says.
"It's the safeguard for the students that everything's in place for them, and that everybody's got a clear understanding of their responsibilities."
The agreement has to deal with everyday practical issues, such as transport and reporting. The students catch the college bus in the morning, but get back to school by taxi. The college fits into each school's reporting systems and provides a parents' evening.
Few schools work in half-day blocks, so there are timetabling problems. The GCSE group has dropped an option block and, with support, can make up for the lessons they miss on Friday mornings. But having two days out creates difficulties for the NVQ students.
Ironically, this could be solved if there were more of them. "I want a group of about 15 to 20 next September so I can tailor-make their timetable," Mr Carr says. The school could also buy in teaching expertise in other areas, such as leisure and tourism.
The pay-off is that it can open doors for young people. Faye Birkett of Balshaws High School had not considered engineering, supposing it to be like mechanics. But now that she's enjoyed learning something new, she might continue with it. "I've got more insight into it than I had before," she says.
The Learning and Skills Development Agency has backed the project by providing someone as a point of contact to attend planning meetings; give advice on finance, the law and how other pilot projects are doing; provide materials for students and parents; and attend parents' evenings.