Until schools are tailor-made for every pupil, there will always be some children who cannot learn in those environments. Hannah Frankel reports on an online alternative
While pupils across the country break up for Christmas, a significant minority will be working throughout the holidays - and some will even be studying on Christmas day. They are not the usual, highly conscientious suspects. On the contrary, among them are school phobics, the violent and the repeatedly excluded.
But while their peers are relaxing, they will continue with their studies, gain qualifications and develop self-esteem. It is all thanks to a radical online scheme called Notschool.net which allows young people who don't "fit" school to do the work of their choice, wherever and whenever they want.
Notschool is designed for 14 to 16-year-olds who have been out of school - whether because of illness, pregnancy, bullying, phobia, travelling, disaffection or exclusion - for at least a year. Having tried every conceivable intervention, 17 local authorities have turned to Notschool.
The young people, or "researchers" as they are known, receive pound;700-worth of ICT equipment, including a broadband-connected computer. With the support of online personal mentors and subject experts (who are all qualified teachers), the researchers then create their own syllabus based on their interests, hobbies or needs.
In the five years it has been running, more than 1,500 children have been through Notschool's virtual doors. Three-quarters come from the poorest two socio-economic groups - 96 per cent have gained accreditation, with one in 12 achieving the equivalent of an A-level.
"It's an unbelievable turnaround," says online education expert Professor Stephen Heppell, the genial founder of Notschool. "These kids often have nothing to show for their education when they join us. To go from that to formal accreditation within three months of starting Notschool is an incredible journey."
The 530 researchers currently on its books are just as enthusiastic.
Although more than 75 per cent have experienced bullying at school, once they enrol with Notschool, many are soon brimming with self-confidence and ambition.
"I hated school and I know every boy or girl says that, but it was different for me," says John, 15. "With Notschool I am learning so much more because when you don't want to be somewhere, you don't feel like doing something, but when you feel fine it makes you want to do your work."
Others found school so traumatic that they have become catastrophically phobic, mute and will not leave their bedrooms. Some have been excluded from both school and pupil referral units, and at least one boy on the project stabbed a teacher. Now they are learning subjects such as Mandarin, animation and web design, alongside more traditional subjects, in a non-threatening and pressure free environment.
"I have never met a child who doesn't want to learn, it's just a question of finding out what fires them up," says project director Jean Johnson.
"Once they start to learn and build up self-esteem, their direction starts to broaden dramatically." And once they are absorbed, they are not interrupted by a bell every 40 minutes.
Notschool is making a reality of the recent White Paper's talk of a "bespoke curriculum", she says. "A lot of people interpret that as something that is dictated to the child. What we do is turn that upside down and negotiate with the child."
"Heaps of people don't like school," says Professor Heppell. "There are things we do in school that are just for our convenience. Being crammed into a classroom with 30 others just because you happen to have been born between two Septembers isn't everyone's idea of the most relaxing or inspiring learning environment. It's a problem with school structures, not necessarily the kids."
Instead of reintegrating its researchers into school, Notschool aims to engage them in learning and life beyond. About 70 per cent go on to college or related employment, 18 per cent go on to full employment and 10 per cent enter university. One girl, who was excluded from a school for educational and behavioural difficulties, wrote a highly acclaimed book while at Notschool before moving on to higher education. "Why would we want to waste that incredible talent and potential?" asks Professor Heppell.
Although careful not to point the finger at the DfES, which entirely funds the project, Professor Heppell has grave reservations about its tough anti-truancy drive. "The Government is constantly trying to coerce pupils back into education with ASBOs, curfews and truancy sweeps. Why bother? You can get them into schools, but it's something else to engage them."
Notschool is currently in discussions with the Government about taking on young people in custody. They would have to wear leg tags and would effectively be under house arrest, but at least they would be learning, says Professor Heppell. It would also be more cost-effective than some of the alternatives. Notschool costs pound;4,000 per pupil per year, compared to pound;10,800 in a pupil referral unit. The long-term cost of excluding a child is about Pounds 180,000.
Much of the prison population has already been let down by the education system. More than 85 per cent of young offenders were excluded from school; if they had joined Notschool, they might have avoided getting involved in crime. Out of the past 1,000 Notschool participants, just two, or 0.2 per cent, ended up in a young offender institution.
Although Notschool passes all welfare issues to social services, it operates 365 days a year, 24 hours a day to provide researchers with support. "Some of these kids come from extremely troubled backgrounds,"
says Ms Johnson, "and Christmas can be a particularly difficult time for them. There are always loads of them online on Christmas Day and New Year's Eve. They are alone or babysitting, but online they can be with friends."
Professor Heppell puts no limit on what the heady Notschool mix can achieve, estimating that a further 50,000 British youngsters could benefit from it. "We can solve the eternal problem for people who school doesn't work for," he says. "It's a bold statement, but we can solve that problem for the entire nation."
'IT'S PUT ME BACK IN TOUCH WITH LIFE'
Kirsty, 15, suffers from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in abnormally long limbs and extremities. Despite treatment, she continues to grow irregularly - especially in one of her breasts, which is disproportionately large. The disorder also causes her knee and back pain and irritable bowel syndrome, and she shouts out involuntarily from time to time. At school, she was worried how other children would react to her size.
Her headteacher arranged for a school counsellor and a reduced curriculum, but she still refused to attend. After much cajoling, she did return but only managed one day. The following morning her mother found her in bed with a knife in her hand, contemplating suicide.
After being out of education for the best part of a year, Kirsty joined the Notschool community. Despite very limited ICT experience, she soon carried out detailed research into Marfan and produced a personal account of how it affects her.
"I am coming to terms with the syndrome, but before I felt like an outsider," she says. "Being the tallest person in my class at school and then the tallest in my year, I found it hard to cope. I also had the bullying, and my confidence has had a beating.
"I'm much better now, but I have quite a way to go. Notschool has helped me a lot. I can learn what I want at my own speed. I've also got friends who I can chat to, which I didn't have before. It's put me back in touch with life."
'HE'S A DIFFERENT PERSON AT HOME'
Tom, 15, was excluded from high school in December 2002 for disruptive behaviour and bringing a knife into school. His local education authority approached two other schools, but he was refused a place by the headteachers.
He was put in a pupil referral unit where his behaviour rapidly spiralled out of control. He refused all instructions and replied with either abusive language or physical violence. His parents referred him to a clinical psychologist.
Tom joined Notschool in March 2004. At the induction he acknowledged his difficulties with adults telling him what to do and said that he would try to change. He also said he was looking for "a laugh" and some certificates.
Since then, Tom has befriended other researchers who live locally and has a good relationship with his mentor and local team. He has never been reprimanded for abusive or inappropriate behaviour. His parents report that he is a "different person" at home and have withdrawn the referral to the clinical psychologist.
As well as being happier and less confrontational, Tom has developed excellent IT skills, made several slideshow movies with music about his main interest, cars, and gained several NVQs.
A Connexions interview has been arranged and he is also applying to colleges for courses in plumbing and car mechanics. He is scheduled to do work experience in May.