They may be in the gutter but they're staring at the stars

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Oscar Wilde cautioned that the truth is rarely pure and never simple. We clutch that aphorism to our hearts because mostly we don't want to hear pure and simple truths - like eating less will make you thin, or money can't buy happiness. It's much more complicated than that, we wail, munching a cream doughnut and picking out our lotto numbers.

Wilde probably never said that success breeds success, but he should have done. Now there's a pure and simple truth for educators. The New Directions project, which has brought 15-year-old "last chance kids" into colleges and was highlighted in The TES Scotland on February 13, has turned disaffected youngsters into achievers; purposeful, motivated and successful.

Jim Doherty, who has been evaluating the New Directions project, has said that "something outstanding and different is happening here". I am delighted to see praise heaped on FE and what it can achieve, but this magical metamorphosis is an example of what goes on in every further education college in Scotland every day.

A learner who comes through our doors is often one who is taking a second chance, maybe even a last chance, and can find an entry point on a suitable competence-based course which will see them achieve. The right learner on the right course is vital, because it is the chance to taste success that changes lives and beliefs. After that, well the sky's the limit, really.

Success is a mighty addictive drug, especially for those who have been unaccustomed to it.

One of my learners has seen her two children complete degree courses and now she is taking the first steps on the ladder towards a law degree. "When I'm finished we can call ourselves the Three Degrees," she says.

Life is an emotional roller-coaster, but when her confidence sags Irena tells herself: "I'm a mother, I've done loads of things, and I can do this." The "can-do" philosophy that permeates FE offers learners a slate wiped clean, and the chance to see competencies rewarded. Irena's confidence will grow as she tastes success and takes her learning one stage at a time.

FE offers other chances. We have a healthy school links programme that includes taster "day in the life" courses which cover career options as varied as dance, hairdressing and animation. Pupils from S3 explore vocational areas and experience what it would be like to be a full-time student.

For those who have already settled their choice and have their sights set firmly on an apprenticeship, we offer courses in construction and electrical installation. Callum is completing the second phase of his course. His gran who comes from Australia has told him there are fine opportunities for skilled tradesmen out there, and he is looking forward to a rosy future. "You can take advantage of opportunities all over the world," he says.

It is not hard to see why colleges can offer some pupils an environment in which they seem to blossom. Lecturers are used to teaching adults and see themselves as facilitators, guiding and supporting learners.

New Deal is proving popular because the curriculum offered is creative, innovative and flexible. It is successful because it is built on the experience and expertise of those working in one of the most challenging and most rewarding fields in education. A bit wordy for an Oscar Wilde aphorism, but a pure and simple truth all the same.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media at Dundee College.

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