'Let down the ladders'

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Colleges recognise the problem of disappearing 16-year-olds. Rotherham College has been running Open Door for a year for a dozen students referred by social workers, youth services or community psychiatric workers. They attend one session a week - limited contact is all that they can stand. But the college slowly introduces them to vocational areas such as construction, catering, art.

Jan Eldred, head of foundation studies, explains: "We give them a taster. These students need time and space to discover where their interests lie. So we build up the time they are expected to be in college slowly. By the end they may be in college four hours a day. We give them intensive personal support - individually designed programmes and their own mentor."

Rotherham and nearby Barnsley and Doncaster have far less of a problem of disappearing teens than Islington and Hackney because of "joined up" local government provision. The local careers service, Lifetime Careers, has identified just 2.8 per cent who are unaccounted for. Almost 70 per cent of 16-year-olds stay on in education or move into training; 8.8 per cent are unemployed.

The college has strong links with local schools and sends small groups of staf on introductory visits. Students at risk have been identified and the college runs an intensive pre-GCSE course for young people, those who are moving on to FE without the required grades and who will find it hard to re-sit exams.

In south London, Lewisham College has identified 12 per cent of 16-year-olds not moving into education. The principal, Ruth Silver, has a simple strategy: make learning fun and celebrate success. "I'm a psychologist by training and I think colleges are in danger of 'clinicising' young people - treating them as problems," she says. "I had one student who said to me 'I came to college to get away from my problems, lady.' He's right; college is about success."

Lewisham's policy is to build a strong brand and enlist local support from residents and businesses. Its students go into local schools as volunteer mentors and, once qualified, are invited back on hourly pay to work as "study buddies" for students with poor basic skills. Ms Silver says: "We've spent the last five years building ladders downwards. There are no weak links."

For further information on the recruitment and management of "missing" teenagers, contact Springboard Hackney. Tel: 020 7684 2345

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