Nice little learners

18th February 2005 at 00:00
In the land of Del Boy, a skills academy aims to train teens for careers a world away from Hooky Street, reports Joe Clancy

Lewisham College lies deep in Only Fools and Horses territory amid run-down trading estates, car repair shops, and scrap metal dealers. But now the south-east London college is at the heart of efforts to rid the area of its Del-Boy image of poverty and dodgy dealing.

Empty buildings on the trading estates near the college - which is just along the New Cross Road from the Trotter family's Peckham home - are being turned into artists' studios. The award-winning Laban dance centre has opened nearby.

And last week two New Labour luminaries turned up to officially open a new skills academy at the college that straddles Deptford Creek, a muddy stream flowing into the Thames.

The academy claims to be a new concept in vocational education, "offering a 21st century vision for young people".

It aims to provide vocational education to 14 to 19-year-olds in a collection of purpose-built "junior workshops" that provide realistic work environments in construction and engineering.

Kim Howells, minister for lifelong learning, and Joan Ruddock, MP for Lewisham and Deptford, rubbed shoulders with 14 and 15-year-olds at the opening ceremony. The youngsters were doing carpentry, bricklaying, painting and decorating, plumbing welding and motor vehicle engineering in scaled-down versions of the workshops for post-16 students across the corridor in the same building.

Only last month, in an interview with The TES, the chief inspector David Bell called for dedicated vocational schools for 14 to 16-year-olds to meet growing demand for job-related courses among younger teenagers. He argued that neither schools nor FE colleges were up to teaching work-related courses to this age group. Schools lacked the skills or resources to do this well, he insisted, and colleges would struggle to cope with large numbers of 14 to 16-year-olds.

Ruth Silver, principal at Lewisham College, is setting out to prove him wrong. She said: "I am vehemently against what Mr Bell is saying. By building dedicated centres, all you are doing is building secondary modern schools like those that my brother went to in the Fifties."

She is adamant that 14 to 16-year-olds need to be in a college environment where they can work alongside older teenagers and adults "so they can see what vocational education leads to".

"They see adults constructing roofs and arches and real buildings around the college and it gives them something to aspire to," she said.

"There is a massive demand for what we are providing. More schools want to come in and neighbouring boroughs are now asking if we can offer the same for them. It may mean that we have to radically alter our shape to accommodate them all, but we can do that. We could do a lot more if the resources were available."

The academy teaches 173 pupils from 11 local secondary schools every week, for one or two days a week. A further 350 14 to 16-year-olds study other vocational subjects, such as hairdressing and beauty and catering.

"This is an offer that fits in with the Tomlinson proposals. It is the kids who drop out at 14 and 15 who become troublesome to society," Ms Silver said. "The challenge for us is to bring these young people into vocational training properly. Schools do not have the space, the staff or the money, so it is up to colleges to provide it."

Lewisham college has 16,000 students of 130 nationalities whose average age is 31. It faces tough competition from two nearby sixth-form colleges, schools with sixth forms, and a raft of private schools, so has to offer something different.

"We educate the mums and dads whose kids go to the local schools," she said. "If we can help them become better qualified, get better jobs and become better paid, that improvement will impact on their children, the schools they attend, and the community. It will enable them to live their lives through choices and not through fate."

Nick Edwards, Lewisham's director of vocational education, said the new rooms for teenagers did not feel like classrooms. "Our workshops have the flavour of the workplace. The students who come here feel they are coming to a working environment rather than a school environment, which I think sets us apart from other colleges providing a vocational offer to 14 to 16-year-olds.

"Some of our 18-year-olds leave here to earn pound;160 a day. When younger students work alongside people like that, it motivates them. It then becomes a smooth transition to the next stage of taking an apprenticeship at the college."

The benefits, he said, extend further. "At parents' evenings we have many mums in tears when we tell them how well a young person is doing. They tell us it is the first time they have heard anyone say anything good about their son or daughter."

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