Some students need experience of adult life before they appreciate the point of qualifications. Neil Merrick reports on projects helping teenagers disaffected with school.
Most young people go to school and college to develop skills which will help them to find a job and achieve their career goals. A minority, however, disaffected with full-time education by their early teens, can only see the point of continuing with learning and gaining qualifications if they receive a taste of the workplace first.
Since the mid 1990s, a range of programmes have been developed by employers and training providers which allow 14 to 16-year-olds to discover an alternative way of learning skills - often by spending one or more days a week out of the classroom.
Northamptonshire is one of 17 areas where New Start projects began last November, to encourage 14 to 17-year-olds with poor school attendance records back into education. Work-based training is a key element of the programmes, along with careers guidance and systems for tracking disaffected teenagers.
"To keep some students in school you have to take them out of school and offer them something different," says Val Carpenter, head of education and training at Northamptonshire Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise. "Schools which cling on to students are the ones which have the most trouble."
Research carried out for the south west London training and enterprise council AZTEC, which covers three boroughs, shows that help for many teenagers often comes too late. Local New Start consultant Pete Hrekow says pupils choosing GCSEs are not always aware that they can opt for work-based training at 16 and so go for subjects they are not interested in and then switch off. "Too many start coming off the rails in year 9, which makes for a horrendous time in years 10 and 11."
The rigidity of school life and in particular the subjects prescribed by the national curriculum are constant sources of complaint. By going into the workplace, teenagers can throw off their uniform and learn among adults in the real world.
"We have to find ways of motivating young people," says Lesley Morphy, policy director of the Prince's Trust, which runs programmes for 14 to 25-year-olds disaffected with mainstream education and training. "Very often going to work will motivate people far more than school. We have to look at the curriculum and introduce a wider range of vocational skills."
The Prince's Trust is considering whether its loan scheme for adults who want to set up in business can be expanded for 16 to 18-year-olds.
It also runs out-of-school study support centres which have mentors from industry and materials donated by employers. "It's all about making young people more employable. If we can involve employers in that, then it's a major bonus," adds Lesley Morphy.
Earlier this year the Department for Education and Employment announced plans to increase work-related learning at key stage 4. Schools with significant truancy and disaffection problems among 14 to 16-year-olds will be encouraged to develop more initiatives with businesses and colleges. Detailed guidelines are unveiled by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in the centre pages of this edition of Business Links.
More vocational and basic skills training were also proposed by the House of Commons Education and Employment Committee in its report Disaffected Children, which speculated that between 100,000 and 220,000 14 to 19-year-olds are not involved in either education, training or employment. MPs emphasised that there is an urgent need to tackle non-participation among 16 and 17-year-olds who are not covered by the new deal for education.
They also pointed to a lack of co-ordination among different agencies trying to tackle disaffection among young people. It is hoped that the problem will be eased by New Start and the creation of the national Social Exclusion Unit, which covers eight government departments and reports directly to the Prime Minister.
The unit's recent report on school exclusion and truancy, while focusing mainly on powers given to the police and local authorities, noted how extra-curricular activities such as work experience schemes can help to motivate pupils at risk of becoming disaffected.
An inter-departmental ministerial group on the family, chaired by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is also looking at disaffection among young people aged 14-plus.
Work-related training for underachievers is one of the key elements in a strategy drawn up by the employer body Business In The Community. Judith Evans, director of human resources at Sainsbury's Homebase and chair of a BITC committee looking at tackling underachievement, believes children who struggle with basic skills in the classroom can find it easier to learn in the context of the workplace, such as working out how full a shelf is and how many cases they need to bring out of the storeroom to fill it.
Ian Pearce, director of education at Business In The Community, emphasises that employers do not want to take only students who are demotivated but see a strong business case for helping schools tackle disaffection.
"It's not charity or altruism," he says. "If you fail to tackle this problem there will be a lost generation of people who are unemployable, which leads to huge costs in terms of crime and lack of social cohesion."