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We're not afraid any more

Some further education students arrive at college with a history of underachievement or mental health problems, and end up dropping out. Fay Young reports on a remarkable support scheme at Stevenson College

Angie lives just across the field from Stevenson College but it took her a year to walk through the doors of the towering reception building by herself.

Angie suffers from agoraphobia which often stopped her getting to school. She reached college literally step by step with the patient encouragement of her tutor, who began by meeting her at the gate.

First they went for coffee, then gradually she was introduced to a small study group, and so to a bigger group. The day Angie walked to college on her own was celebrated by her lecturers as major progress. Now, two years later, Angie is studying psychology in a large mainstream class.

Angie's progress is one of many remarkable stories in the report of a two-year project at Edinburgh's Stevenson College. The results of "Support Plus" turn upside down conventional ideas of success and failure.

Altogether 46 young students, aged 16-18, took part as the college's student support service investigated the support needs of students coming to college with a history of underachievement at school.

Each faced a different challenge - while Kirsty was struggling to combine study with the responsibility of caring for her baby alone (her family kicked her out when she became a teenage mother), David was reluctant to seek help with his dyslexia for fear of losing face in front of other classmates in the engineering course.

"Success is something different for each person," says Celia Barron, a senior lecturer with the student support service. "For some students success might simply mean the confidence to come into the canteen for a coffee."

For Kirsty it meant going on to university to study for a degree in accountancy. There were unexpected advantages for Stevenson too, as Ms Barron pointed out when she presented a workshop at the Scottish Further Education Unit conference "Building the Future of our Learning Nation" in November.

The statistic which visibly impressed the mixed group of policy makers and purse holders was the dramatic difference Support Plus made to college attendance. By Christmas, 81 per cent of students involved in the project were still attending, compared to 44 per cent of a similar age group outside the project.

By the end of the year 56 per cent of the Support Plus students were still there, compared to only 22 per cent of the unsupported group.

Stevenson's investigation provides an important message for Scotland's increasingly crowded FE colleges as they stretch to offer wider access to all. Almost by definition, "social inclusion" means enrolling more students with social and educational needs.

Recent surveys estimate that as many as one-in-five children at school have mental health problems but unless there is an obvious cause (dyslexia or a diagnosable physical or mental illness), most children in difficulty give no visible sign of trouble beyond underachieving at school and then dropping out at college.

"Drowning quietly at the back," is how Baroness Veronica Link-later puts it. "Further education is seen as the last chance for many young people, but unless they get support in the early stages they are likely to drop off the edge."

Baroness Linklater, a driving force of Support Plus, is the founder of the New School at Butterstone for "educationally fragile" children. Her daughter Freya was the inspiration for a school which aims to fill the gap between mainstream education and special schools. When Freya left school the campaign progressed inevitably to further education.

Contact with Stevenson's support team convinced Baroness Linklater that vulnerable students needed more support and more time to settle in. Through a combination of pressure and encouragement ("I'm quite used to lobbying") the then Scottish Office Education Department agreed to provide funding for Stevenson to investigate the needs of underachieving students.

The support team soon discovered these students were already at college, they were already struggling and they were there in larger numbers than anyone had expected. Most students in the project (80 per cent) showed some signs of mental health problems, or displayed social and emotional difficulties ranging from bullying at school to abuse at home. Most were also suffering from low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence.

However, few of these problems were obvious until the support team got to know the students personally.

Support Plus shows that the right help at the right time can give new confidence, independence and hope to even the most vulnerable young students. But what is the right help?

"We discovered that the project was as much about the college's ability to support students as about the actual students themselves," says Mary Hitt, author of the report.

Stevenson already had a well-established support service but it depended largely on students seeking help for themselves. The Support Plus team of six lecturers actively created contact with students as they set about developing a highly flexible and innovative system.

The team's changes included creating new courses and taking a new approach to counselling. "Young people who have learned to think of themselves as natural victims do not want to spend a lot of time exploring how they got to be that way," says Kathy Fraser, a student support lecturer.

"They want to learn how to cope with the anxieties they are feeling here and now."

Using cognitive behavioural counselling techniques, Ms Fraser helped students to challenge their "automatic thoughts" of failure and fear in certain situations. "The idea is to change thought patterns by constantly asking new questions. Is what I fear really happening? Is everyone really looking at me? Why should I think they don't want me to be in their group? What is the worst-case scenario and why shouldn't I be able to cope with it?" The biggest challenge for many students is moving from the relatively protected environment of school to the adult world of college where they are "left to get on with it" as 20-year-old Shona puts it. Shona needed a bridge between Stevenson and the Young People's Unit at the Royal Edinburgh where she was being treated for depression and anorexia.

"What helped me was constantly being encouraged by the staff to see that I was making progress even when I felt I wasn't."

Shona's experience highlights the co-operative teamwork which seems crucial to the success of Support Plus. From the outset the project depended on good relationships and clear communication, not just between support staff and schools or special units but - equally important - also between support staff and other lecturers in college.

Without the understanding of mainstream staff, potentially difficult or disruptive students could not become part of the group. In some areas support staff stayed discreetly out of sight and left guidance to mainstream lecturers. David's dyslexia, for example, was most effectively helped by the engineering lecturer in the mechanics workshop under the helpful guise of extra technical instruction on computers.

"Young people often don't want to be treated as different," says Ms Barron. "The last thing a young motor mechanic wants is to be seen going along to a middle-aged woman for help."

Lessons learned from Support Plus have already led to changes at Stevenson. FE colleges need more contact with schools and students with a history of underachieving need more time to develop potential.

But funding should not be a problem. The Support Plus report concludes:

"Funding provided for extended learning support is sufficient to fund the support strategies provided access to it is possible."

That means ring-fencing the cash that colleges are already allocated for support. The reward is not just higher attendance figures but a noticeable increase in the students' self-confidence. As Ms Barron told the SFEU delegates in Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel: "Think of it as an investment."

Copies of 'Support Plus' are available from Celia Barron, Stevenson College Bankhed Avenue, Edinburgh EH11 4DE. Tel 0131 535 4729.

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