Vocational choices are boosting motivation

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Exploiting the relaxation of age and stage restrictions for academic exam courses is just one aspect of moving towards genuinely comprehensive schools, says Michael O'Neill, North Lanarkshire's director of education.

Another, which he has called "the most crucial area for comprehensive schools in Scotland over the next few years", is vocational education.

"All the evidence we have is that pupils doing these behave better, attend better, are less of a problem and see a purpose in what they are doing," he says.

At Clyde Valley High in Wishaw, third year pupils are revelling in their freedom from being compelled to take classes and Standard grade exams that don't interest them - in some subjects at least - for the sake of a notional breadth of the curriculum.

They have the option to drop entire modes, such as science, modern languages or creative and aesthetic studies. Instead they can take courses at Intermediate 1 in auto engineering, construction and beauty and hairdressing.

"At the moment these are course units, although they do provide qualifications recognised by colleges and employers," says Ian Sommerville, the headteacher. "As of next year we will be offering entire Intermediate 1 courses."

An existing partnership with Motherwell College provided a strong foundation for developing these vocational courses, he says.

"Lecturers from the college come into school to deliver the classes, which is far better than kids going out to college."

Mr Sommerville explains that falling school rolls mean many schools have space that could readily be equipped for teaching car mechanics, construction and beauty and hairdressing.

In the beauty salon, girls in smart white coats are performing mysterious rituals on each other's faces, hair and legs.

"I knew I wanted to be a beauty therapist before I picked my subjects," says Stefinie O'Dwyer. "The teachers helped me to pick ones that would be good for that.

"My mum let me do her hair and I did a good job. Really nice."

"So far we haven't had any boys doing beauty or girls doing construction, but they can," Mr Sommerville says.

After visiting the car bay, which contains a Rover, a Volkswagen, a hydraulic ramp, and a partially dismantled engine, but no pupils right now, Mr Sommerville opens the door on a large, airy room with roof windows, hand-painted walls and a bare floor. In one corner a busy looking group of boys in blue overalls is mixing cement.

"We've been laying a garage floor and we're going to build a patio," explains Sean Quigley, 14, who wants to be a car mechanic when he leaves school.

"I'm not doing art, drama or music this year. But it was me who painted this part of the wall," he says, pointing with justifiable pride to a big St Andrew's cross and colourful abstract design.

"I talked to the fourth years and they said I should do construction because it was really good. The thing is, you like doing it, so you get fired into it. Some other subjects aren't interesting and you don't want to do them."

As well as having the option to study auto engineering, construction and beauty and hairdressing at Intermediate 1, the third year pupils are able to choose Skill Force (outdoor activity courses run by former military officers), hospitality and PC Passport, focusing on industry standard information technology skills.

The only compulsory subjects are English and maths. The effects on pupils have been highly beneficial, says Mr Sommerville.

"Each year when it came to subject choice time there were pupils who were struggling in particular columns to choose something they really wanted to do.

"When we started to think flexibly about what alternatives we might offer, we had to look at the physical location, the material apparatus, the timetable. But with strong support from the authority, none of that was too difficult. It's working really well now.

"We offer kids a curriculum that provides breadth and does not over-specialise. It gives young people a wider choice which improves their motivation, and in the longer term, I believe, it will raise achievement, performance and attainment."

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