Second time around;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
Alternative curriculum strategies need to be set up for truants and disaffected students who miss out on the education they need, says Professor Ken Reid

DAVE is now thirty-four years of age. He admits that at school he was a persistent truant. He left with two O-levels in maths and English.

"I didn't turn up for anything else. I thought everything else was a complete waste of time. By 16 I thought I was a real man and school didn't interest me. "

After a short period of drifting between jobs, Dave became a full-time apprentice electrician for five years.He also achieved nine City and Guilds certificates. He began to realise he wasn't so daft.

Following his apprenticeship, he set up his own business in electrical installation. One of these contracts took him to his local FE college where, due to "a spot of luck", he re-developed his enthusiasm and interest in education.

"One of the lecturers asked me to teach his apprentices for six weeks about the world of work." He enjoyed the experience so much that he decided to retrain as a teacher, enrolling on the shortened BEd degree at Gwent Institute of Higher Education. He then took a part-time Master's degree in the Sociology of Sport and is currently starting on an MBA programme at Swansea Institute.

Dave started teaching full-time in 1992. Having progressed along the mainstream teacher scale, he is now co-ordinator of vocational education at a comprehensive school which enrols pupils from a fairly deprived catchment area in South Wales.

As a former successful first-class rugby player, he believes he is on the same wavelength as some of his disaffected pupils. "They are saying the same things that I used to feel when I truanted."

Like many of his fellow teachers at the same school, Dave believes that most of the truants from his school are bored with the inflexibility of a national curriculum "irrelevant for their future needs in life's adventures ahead". He considers the way forward is to provide less able, disadvantaged pupils with second-chance opportunities based on alternative curriculum strategies.

He is convinced that if these second chances were structured properly, many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, including truants, would grasp their new opportunities.As an example, he cites 14-year-old pupils who attend a bricklaying course at Neath College. They attend every college session, even though they regularly miss school. They even attended on the day Wales played Argentina, even though most regular-attending pupils skipped school to watch the game

"This shows that the real issue is relevance. When pupils find their curriculum relevant and interesting, they will attend. If bored, they will truant."

A similar experiment at Newcastle College reports that truants who regularly miss local schools often turn up at the college three-quarters of an hour early for their bricklaying classes. They will even volunteer to stay behind to help clean up afterwards.

So how could realistic second-chance opportunities be introduced into the British education system? There are three potential strategies.

The first is to formalise the link between schools and local FE colleges for pupils of 14-plus.

Pupils would decide either to follow an "academic" route in school, or to partially or fully transfer to the local college and follow a vocational route which would encompass such skills as the use of the latest information technology. These programmes would prepare students for the world of work and their future adult lives. They would also incorporate essential numeracy and literacy skills as a compulsory component.

The second idea would be to open specialist second-chance schools for first-time failures, such as disaffected and underachieving pupils. These schools could be seen as an alternative to existing, traditional forms of schooling. It is possible that some might be specifically built using European funding.

Alternatively, some local schools with falling pupil numbers could be merged, enabling the education authority to re-launch a declining institution as an innovative second-chance school.

The third possibility is to formally allocate all pupils up to the age of 18, with a certain number of "points" or "credits" which would entitle the holders to free education, irrespective of their age or previous achievements at school. They could be used at any stage during life and to follow any programme.

The idea would be to encourage those who underachieve, or opt out of school early, to re-enter the education system at an appropriate level, after they have experienced some of the harsher realities of life, or the world of work.

Whichever option is chosen, an urgent rethink of compulsory schooling for post-14-year-olds is vitally needed if society is to gain the maximum potential from all its citizens in the future.

Professor Ken Reid is author of Truancy and Schools and Tackling Truancy in Schools, which are both published by Routledge. Professor Reid is assistant principal at Swansea Institute of Higher Education.

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