The more relaxed setting of a further education college can work wonders for teenagers who don't get what they need from school. Steven Hastings reports
On Fridays, 15-year-old Becky Howard leaves her Year 10 classmates at their desks, while she tangles with the art of hairdressing at Sheffield College.
She's one of more than 100,000 14 to 16-year-olds in Britain who spend part of their school week in further education colleges. The recent Tomlinson report promised an expansion in opportunities for vocational training from 14, but in reality the boom has already begun.
"I'm learning in a hands-on way, which suits me," enthuses Becky, who spends the rest of the week at the city's Handsworth Grange school. "I find reading hard, and if you find reading hard, you find school hard. So you're labelled thick. After a while you start to believe it." The day in college has helped her rethink her future and reform her behaviour. "It's given me more confidence. And because I want to be here, my attitude is better in school. I turn up and work hard - so I don't jeopardise my college day."
In particular she feels she's grown up. Working on the hairdressing course with students who are "really old" - by which, it turns out, she means mid-20s - has helped her mature. "It's good being with older people. If you're one of the oldest in school then who are your role models?" And she likes being on first-name terms with the lecturers. "It takes away a barrier. It's no longer 'them and us'."
In some ways Becky fits the typical image of the mix-and-match student. She admits that she "struggles to see the point" of school, and is only too happy to have a change of scene. But she's also polite, articulate and thoughtful. So what about that other common perception: that schools send only the students they don't want in the classroom?
"That's not so true any more," insists Henry Hui, 14 to 19 learning development and projects manager at Sheffield College. "It used to be that schools released those they wanted off their hands, the ones causing havoc.
But increasingly we're getting a full cross-section."
He says college lecturers have had few difficulties adapting to a younger audience - even those who arrive with a reputation. "Staff receive full training, but at the same time we don't want tutors to behave like school teachers. We're not replicating the school experience, we're offering something different. Even children who have been awkward in school will modify their behaviour in an atmosphere of mutual respect."
Ben Beech, a Year 11 student at Birley community school, who spends a day a week signwriting and bricklaying, is a perfect example. "Life at school was one argument after another," he says. "I'd had three last warnings, I was close to being thrown out." The cause of these on-going conflicts? "Uniform, always uniform. If you wore trainers with just a flash of white on them you were sent home to change, or made to wear school plimsolls. It was humiliating. People don't understand how uniform can be such an issue, but it is."
When Ben turned 16, he stopped going to school. But, like Becky, he finds his relationship with staff at Sheffield College is positive and relaxed.
As a result the style of learning is different. "At school it's teachers telling you what to do, but at college it's more like a friend showing you.
You also learn by working with people older than yourself. When I arrived I was struggling with some bricklaying, and another student with a couple of years' experience came and showed me how to smooth it off."
His time in college has also opened Ben's eyes to a wider world. "I meet people of all ages and backgrounds. School is just people of your own age from your area. My school is almost all-white, whereas here I've learned a lot about other cultures."
And the extra life-experience has helped Ben secure his first-choice course. "I'll be doing plumbing at Chesterfield College; they offered me a place because I was already doing well in a college environment. If I'd applied from school, where most teachers had a low opinion of me, I wouldn't have got in."
In addition to the 200 or more schoolchildren who come in once or twice a week, a growing number of 14 to 16s study full time - some following academic rather than vocational programmes.
Each year, Sheffield College offers 40 full-time places to this age group: these are oversubscribed, and students are selected by interview. They come from many situations and backgrounds. A handful have been excluded from schools in the city, some are young refugees or asylum seekers concentrating on English and ICT skills. One girl, recently arrived from Israel, is fast-tracking GCSEs in one year rather than two; another, who has been home educated, has chosen to do two years at college to sit key GCSEs. For some it's the flexibility that appeals, while for others it's a chance for a fresh start.
For 15-year-old Chris Hicks, the college provided a critical lifeline when attendance at school became impossible. After prolonged experience of bullying at junior and secondary level, he began suffering black-outs caused by a fear of school - even passing a playground could be enough to make him faint. In the middle of Year 8 he was taken out of school on medical grounds and his parents tried to educate him at home. But they struggled to cope, and the family jumped at the chance of getting Chris into college, where he has been for the past year.
"My life has been transformed. I felt at home here from the start," he says. "People seemed interested in me and wanted me to do well." He has been helped by the support network at the college. Many of the under-16s who study full time have had social or academic difficulties at school, so are supported by personal tutors who monitor their progress. "But I've never felt like a special case. I was only 14 when I started here but everyone is treated the same. " Chris struggles to imagine what would have happened if he'd stayed in school. He says he suffered from depression, but is now relaxed, confident and enjoying his studies. "On a recent evaluation I was asked to list three negative things about college. I couldn't do it. It's been all positives for me."
Chris's experience has even persuaded his father, David, to enrol on an Open University course. "His enthusiasm opened my eyes to how much fun learning can be," says David. "Chris used to be sick at the thought of school, but now, even if he's unwell, we struggle to stop him going into college."
Such success stories show the potential for using FE colleges as an integral part of the 14 to 16 system. The Association of Colleges predicts that the number of 14 to 16-year-olds making use of colleges will double over the next few years, so getting the infrastructure right is important.
Ofsted recently voiced concerns that basic organisation, lesson timetabling and information sharing between schools and colleges had fallen foul of the rush to expand vocational opportunities. Sheffield College expects its numbers to continue to rise, but insists this will not be at the expense of quality. "We want the young people who come here to have the best experience we can give them," says Mr Hui.
Nationally, future numbers will depend partly on funding arrangements, which vary between regions. One of the reasons Sheffield offers a wide 14 to 16s programme is the city's Objective One status (EU funding reserved for the poorest economies across Europe), so sending a student to college costs the school nothing. But over the next four years this funding will be phased out and schools will be charged an hourly rate. It remains to be seen how willing or able they will be to foot the bill. Other colleges also say schools with sixth forms are reluctant to give students a taste of FE for fear of losing them.
It's easy to see why they might be wary. Nineteen out of every 20 schoolchildren who attend Sheffield College for a day a week go on to take another course or enrol full time. Overwhelmingly positive, they appear mature, confident and ambitious. "If I wasn't here, I'd be nowhere. I'd be finished," says Chris. "As it is, I'm just getting started."