Where truants become eager beavers

29th September 1995 at 01:00
"Our problem is, we can't get rid of them," says Lynda Smith. "They're here at 8.15 in the morning and still milling about half an hour after they should be gone.

"We're delighted, of course."

As she should be. The 24 pupils in the shabby, terraced headquarters of the Schoolhouse Education Project, in Lewisham, South-east London, have not always been such eager beavers. These are people who, frequently alienated, have spent most of their secondary careers anywhere but the classroom: "hardcore non-attenders", to use the jargon, from the fourth and fifth year.

Now their attendance rate is 98 per cent and the Schoolhouse is popular enough to be oversubscribed.

Lewisham's efforts with this age group won praise in a government report which, published this week, examined attempts across the country to curb truancy.

James Learmonth, an independent evaluator and the author, found many positive developments in schools and local authorities. He praised same-day response schemes as notably effective - in the short term - and pointed to whole-school policies as the best way forward in the medium term.

Truancy among disaffected pupils at the top end of secondary school seems, however, a largely intractable problem, says the report. Except, that is, for the good example set by a small number of authorities including East Sussex, Cambridgeshire and Lewisham.

The borough funds two full-time workers in the terraced house itself, which is in Deptford, the decaying centre of South London's former docking trade. It also pays for a Year 11 coordinator, bringing together the school and FE programmes for the oldest group, while Lewisham College chips in with some tutorial time. Overall the cost is about Pounds 80,000 a year.

The terraced house was deliberately chosen, says Lynda Smith, deputy chair of the charity's board of managers, so as to be as different as possible from the standard institutional architecture.

"Most of our young people are so alienated from school life that it's very difficult for them even to go into certain sorts of building," says Lynda Smith. "Although we do recognise the need where possible to get young people back into mainstream education."

The Schoolhouse offers a full national curriculum, structured work experience and, for the fifth-year pupils, organises joint programmes with Lewisham College. This she says is important as it allows students to feel they can end their careers in an officially recognised place. It also brings them into contact with a wider world.

One recent success story was a girl who was physically sick every time she went to school, and as a consequence she rarely did. Yet with the individual attention and support offered at the Schoolhouse she got three GCSEs, two at A and one at B, and a place in further education.

Lynda Smith accepts that this sort of specialised help is probably beyond most secondary schools. But she believes that much more could be done to head off problems in the early years. "We can't keep waiting for young people to drop out of the system before helping. We need to notice these problems much faster and funding needs to be found."

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