Colleges are stimulating the minds of children who are not suited to the regours of the national curriculum but want to get a taste for vocational training in an environment where they are treated like young adults.
Every week, schools across the country send thousands of key stage four pupils into colleges, where they get a much-needed break from GCSEs.
City of Bristol began offering work-related courses for 14 to 16-year-olds seven years ago, initially to pupils from special schools. Since then, the programme has mushroomed so about 500 youngsters from more than 30 local secondary schools now attend the college each year. Schools generally send a group of pupils to the college for half or one day a week. After nine weeks studying one subject, they will switch to another programme and eventually sample what Pete Weston, the college's head of vocational preparation and progression, describes as a "carousel of educational opportunities".
School subjects include carpentry, horticulture, plastering and motor vehicle maintenance. The main attraction for schools, who pay City of Bristol for using its facilities, is pupils learn from expertlecturers and sample equipment that is rarelyavailable in secondary schools.
But who are these pupils and why have they been chosen to go to college while their peers stay in school? Since September 1998, schools have been allowed to "disapply" parts of the national curriculum for teenagers who are more vocationally orientated. Yet City of Bristol stresses its programmes are not run solely for the disapplied or the disaffected.
"Some schools identify a group of young people who would benefit from a more vocationally-orientated curriculum," says Mr Weston. "Others put vocational studies into their year 10 option block. We could be talking about students who will get GCSEs at grades A-C."
Brian Rees-Oliver, head of vocational education at Hartcliffe School in Bristol, insists he is not bringing "a lump of disaffected children" into the college every Wednesday afternoon. "Some kids are top of their maths set and doing 11 GCSEs," he says.
But others are bored by the rigidities of the national curriculum and prefer a taste of working in a more stimulating learning environment. "They want something realistic. Here they are treated as young adults and there is no punishment structure," he explains. "It takes a while for them to get used to the fact that teachers don't know them, but it's quite refreshing for them to be taught by a man or women who is at the top of their trade."
Hartcliffe sends about 40 year 10 pupils each Wednesday afternoon and a similar number of year 11 pupils on Tuesdays. Each cohort is split into four groups. The younger pupils attend a theory course and then three separate vocational courses in nine-week blocks. Older pupilsnormally specialise in two vocational areas. The pupils receive health and safety training before all sessions and are warned that, if they mess around, they will be sent back to school and lose the chance to attend college again. Mr Rees-Oliver can only recall two instances in five years when pupils had to be disciplined.
Steve Bryant, the college's 14-16 curriculum development manager, says: "We get the occasional behavioural problems, but no more than we get with 16 to 19-year-old students."
Pete Weston agrees that discipline is not normally a problem but welcomes the fact that most schools have appointed college-link co-ordinators who are encouraged to attend with their pupils and incorporate some of the ideas they pick up in lessons at school. "We have a more coherent and structured relationship with schools," he says. "Schools are sending staff with their groups whereas, in the past, they would just drop them off and disappear."
The college carries out police checks on all of its staff, regardless of whether they normally teach young people or adults.
Training and development for college lecturers is also critical for the success of such programmes. They must be aware that pupils, who usually attend in their uniforms, are used to more structured learning and cannot be left to their own devices in the same ways as older students.
Some City of Bristol lecturers have attended sessions on managing younger students.
There have also been joint training days with staff from local secondary schools where they share good practice. But not all lecturers have received training.
These include catering lecturer Mandy Cotton, who teaches pupils two afternoons a week. She enjoys the challenge of working with younger groups but admits the qualification she gained before teaching in FE did not cover all the skills required to teach 14 to 16-year-olds.
"The younger children are not really used to college life and find it quite daunting," she says. "Some of the children are not so capable and the tasks we teach them have to reflect that, but it's more rewarding to teach that sort of child."
In the college's woodwork room, a group of nine boys from Hartcliffe School are making bird boxes with lecturer Pete Clark. "It's a chance for them to see how people work during modern apprenticeships," he says.
Dean Leslie and Chris Pollinger, both pupils in Year 10, have moved across to woodwork after nine weeks studying motor vehicle maintenance. Both are doing 11 GCSEs in addition to attending the college one afternoon per week.
"It gets you out of school and gives you a breather. It's more fun," says Dean. Chris chose the vocational programmes as an alternative to PE at Hartcliffe. "This is where I want to be when I'm older," he says, looking around the college.
Only one out of every four youngsters who are sent to the college by schools are girls.
The programmes offered at City of Bristol lead to a range of certificates and units at NVQ level one, or GNVQ foundation units.