Skills with a spark of genius

11th May 2001 at 01:00
The digital economy isn't just for ritzy entrepreneurs. It's a vital learning tool for disaffected and disadvantaged young people, says Tom McGhee

In the push towards encouraging inclusion within schools, a Paisley-based company using information and communication technology with disaffected and disadvantaged young people is breaking new ground. Spark of Genius (Training) has just completed a state-of-the-art ICT training centre which will be opened next month by Wendy Alexander, the local MSP and Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning.

The company, funded by the Scottish University for Industry, specialises in writing software and providing Internet training and e-commerce applications for small to medium-sized enterprises and then delivering these skills to disaffected and disadvantaged young people.

What is unique about Spark is that it uses digital skills to re-engage some of the most difficult young people, as well as many who have underperformed badly enough to be excluded from mainstream education.

Spark takes in primary children with Asperger's Syndrome, secondary pupils with often severe personal, behavioural or psychological problems and those who have only an inability to fit into school. We have a broad curriculum including both English and maths, but the hook is to show these young people the growing opportunities for learning and employment in the digital age.

So virtually everything we do, from personal and social development to literacy and numeracy and sport, will employ advanced ICT. We ally this to training school-leavers in how to work for many of the private companies in the other half of our business. We don't just operate as a specialist school; we also work for the private sector.

Spark is involved in a range of programmes for west of Scotland local authorities from a full-time day school to part-time eveing and summer classes and a "web school" aimed at "refusniks" who cannot, or will not, attend mainstream education.

William Cosh, former headteacher at the Kibble Centre in Paisley, has joined Spark to bring his 20 years' experience in special needs to the company. He says that often alternatives are simply holding areas, allowing difficult or underachieving young people to play computer games, and it's often seen as a result when the young people turn up with any degree of regularity. What we are doing at Spark is totally different.

Accreditation is in the form of Scottish Qualifications Authority units and National Certificate modules, and from August Standard grades and Higher Still. Many young people have already passed the European Computer Driving Licence accreditation, which is the new benchmark for computer literacy across the continent. Part of the Spark approach is to make all information about programmes and performance, except for personal details about the young people, available on the web.

Our vision is that young people never feel stigmatised or inferior because they have had problems. We are realistic about their backgrounds and the reasons why they are with us. We have all underperformed at some stage in our lives, and sometimes we have caused problems for parents, teachers or peers.

With our local authority customers all implementing inclusion in some degree, we concentrate on finding innovative solutions. In some small part we want to help young people gain skills which will contribute to creating not just a digital economy, but a digital country.

Tom McGhee is director of Spark of Genius and a former teacher. Spark of Genius (Training) Ltd can be contacted at Abbey Mill Business Centre, Mile End, Seedhill Road, Paisley PA1 1JS. Tel: 0141 587 2710. www.spark E-mail: admin@spark

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