As the 3-18 curriculum is reviewed, Jack McConnell wants more access to vocational courses for pupils. Falkirk presents a model of good practice, a consortium approach to offering both practical and academic studies, writes Raymond Ross
In five to 10 years it could be the norm for S3 pupils to start vocational courses without going to a further education college. This was the vision presented by the First Minister, Jack McConnell, and North Lanarkshire's director of education, Michael O'Neill, at a recent conference on diversity in the curriculum.
As things are now, it is mostly further education colleges which deliver courses on beauty therapy, construction and so on, and some people would argue that schools could never match their scale of provision or provide the same reality of vocational experience.
One model of good practice in secondary school links covering the entire S1 to S6 spectrum with vocational, specialist and academic courses is the consortium approach adopted by Falkirk.
In August 2001, Falkirk College co-operated with the council's education department to develop a standardised timetable which has led to more senior students from the authority's eight secondaries attending the college for part of their schooling. And while some colleges may be cutting back on their provision for school pupils, Falkirk is looking to expand.
New pilot courses in construction and hospitality will start in January, which will allow S3-S4 students to pursue a Scottish Progression Award, attending the college one day a week. This is in addition to induction and work simulation days for S3 pupils, alternative curriculum classes for S3s and S4s, summer schools for S4s and S5s and twilight masterclasses in music, engineering, the sciences and art and design for S1 pupils who have specific interests or abilities in these subjects.
Falkirk College lecturers also go into local secondaries to teach. For example, last year the college ran a Higher psychology class at Graeme High, achieving 20 passes out of 25, the average being a B.
More than 2,600 pupils are involved in these activities. The money comes from two sources: core funding (as for any other students, though the pupils pay no fees) and some pilot funding from Falkirk's education department, which also provides transport.
Teachers also benefit from links with the college. It has provided professional development for teachers and sits in on the once-a-term meetings of all the subject principal teachers in Falkirk.
Fraser Lamb, the depute headteacher at Graeme High, regards the college links as invaluable and is sceptical that schools will be able to offer pupils the resources and specialisms which a college can.
"With school stay-on rates high, we need to persuade young people that there is progression outwith higher education, that there are serious alternatives to university. But for schools to provide vocational training on this level will mean huge increases in resources and the retraining of teachers.
"How can you teach hospitality without catering-style equipment, for example?
"I think college links will be the way forward for years," he says.
Mr Lamb believes pupils like going to college for vocational education because it makes them feel more adult. He says their perception of what they are doing is very important. They get more out of courses on, for example, beauty therapy, care, travel and tourism and mechatronics (technology combining mechanical engineering and electronics) because they see it as practical and what they want to do in life, and many will go on to college full-time to pursue these courses, he says.
Many Christmas school leavers feel held back for half a year because of an accident of birth, he says. "Their mate goes to college or is doing an apprenticeship and they can't. That's frustrating, especially for boys. So college experience makes good sense for them, as it does for the college and schools."
What the Falkirk consortium approach is certainly not about is dumping frustrated or failing pupils on the college, says Stephanie Graham, its director of curriculum and quality development.
"We can introduce pupils to new subjects, such as psychology, sociology and media studies, and broaden their education," she says.
"We offer top-end provision in Highers as well as twilight masterclasses for talented S1 pupils. But it is important that in both cases we are enhancing what pupils do at school. We are not in competition.
"In the music masterclass, for example, we can offer access to recording equipment way beyond what a school can. We also offer portfolio classes for pupils preparing for art college. It's an intensive two-day course."
With regard to vocational pupils, Ms Graham argues that college offers a working environment which schools don't or can't.
"If you're going to excite the vocational pupils you need to get as close as possible to the real working environment," she says. "What's important is that they are actually doing something for real. These pupils learn through doing; the theory comes as part of that."
Ms Graham sees college-school links as providing opportunities for growth.
Bringing in pupils at different stages of their secondary education eases their transition to an adult environment and they meet other students.
"It's important to build links with teachers, many of whom will have gone straight to university or art college themselves, to show them that there are other progression routes for pupils," she says.
"We are patently not about stealing their best pupils. Experience here can encourage pupils to stay on at school and come here one or two days a week.
"It's important that teachers feel they can recommend us to all pupils, not just the failing few."
At Falkirk College, pupils are carefully tracked in terms of attendance, late arrival, early leaving and behaviour. Grace MacDonald, the college's schools liaison co-ordinator, says they integrate very well and there have been very few instances of absenteeism or poor behaviour.
Ms Graham agrees, saying: "We have never had any complaints from our students about pupils attending the college."
"I do personal and social education in schools before they come," says Ms MacDonald. "I also hold parents' evenings. Keeping parents informed is very important.
"The pupils come in S3 to do work simulation, a one-day work experience of their choice, which can be anything from bricklaying to beauty therapy.
That's usually their first taste of college.
"In S4 I visit them in school and I get career referrals from schools and referrals for alternative curriculum courses with a strong vocational element. These will replace, for example, modern languages in their timetables.
"We actually have a growing number of under-16s now following an alternative curriculum."
She believes the new Scottish Progression Award courses will keep S3-S4 pupils motivated in school as well as at college. "It's about progression pathways to keep them engaged," she says.
"It's all down to co-operation between the college and Falkirk schools in the consortium and the Stirling schools who use us on a more ad hoc basis.
"I really enjoy seeing the pupils progress and it's tremendously satisfying to know that we're offering them something they can benefit from, especially when you see them going on to university or college full time," she says.
Ms Graham feels the college needs to review and expand its school links.
"We've been offering Highers and Intermediates for three years. That's well embedded and now we need to evaluate the provision. Some areas are over-subscribed while others are covered by the schools. We need to focus more on areas such as beauty therapy, construction and hospitality, which can't be done in school with a proper simulated work environment.
"Although our funding is practically stationary, we are looking to expand rather than cut schools provision. Stirling schools want to make more contact, for example.
"We have to look at provision strategically because of our success to date.
We need to expand in suitable areas," she says.
WHAT THE PUPILS SAY
"College gives a chance to experience a new way of learning in a different environment. This subject is not available at school."
Travel and tourism student:
"At college you are treated like an adult. It is a lot of fun but the work is done at the same time."
"The subjects are very interesting and it is helpful to study in a different environment. Biotechnology has broadened my knowledge of science.
I am sure the skills I have learnt will help me in later life."
Human biology student:
"Education at college is better than at school. There are mature students, so no time is wasted in class."
"I find college is a good way to become more confident and independent and would recommend it to others as they can gain a higher qualification as well as other skills."
"I always thought I would like to be a beauty therapist when I left school and doing this course has given me the chance to see what it's like. I prefer my afternoons at the college because I feel more independent."
"I never thought of construction before but I find it interesting and may want to do this after I leave school. I love going to college because they treat you more as an adult."
While schools are focusing on the primary-secondary transition, so Falkirk College is focusing on the secondary-further education transition.
"We need to focus here because it helps with achievement and retention," says Stephanie Graham, the director of curriculum and quality development.
"It's important that we get to know secondary pupils to help them choose the right course if and when they come here full time. The more we do to prepare them, the more chance they will stay the course, because they understand what they are coming into and how it works."
The five-day summer schools run by Falkirk College for S4 and S5 pupils are both vocational and fun. The pupils spend two days working in a chosen area of interest, such as music technology or animation, a day on another choice, then have a day of work experience, finishing with a day visit to somewhere like Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh.
The summer schools are voluntary but show the kinds of doors the college can open. "There is a strong element of marketing our provision and it's important to demonstrate the high quality of that provision," says Ms Graham.