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A working alternative to school

Too many skilled and talented individuals are trapped in an exam dominated system that is loaded against them, says Tony Thornton

WAS delighted to read the Scottish Executive's response to the national debate on education. The current system is inherently weak because it is aimed at pupils who can easily adapt to a disciplined regime in which the criterion for success is the attainment of examination results.

It is an effective vehicle to carry people on into further or higher education. It does not prepare people to gain employment and take a responsible role in society by the age of l6. For some young people, a school environment is simply not appropriate. There are those who have clear-cut career ambitions that do not demand the expanse of the school curriculum. There are those who have unique skills that are not catered for by the curriculum. And there are those that will just not fit into the school environment. As there is no real alternative, these individuals are trapped in a system that is loaded against them.

To prepare these pupils for a place in society we must recognise their ambitions, and give them ownership and responsibility for their own education. We must provide motivation and offer a learning environment that is non-threatening, where pupils are perceived individually rather than as names on a class register. In short, we need an alternative to school - but open to all.

There may be a perception that offering pupils a choice will lead to the creation of a two-tier system. But the reality is that a non-discriminatory option is essential for any individual, which has pupils' best interests at heart, whatever their ability or background.

Imagine no curriculum, no uniform, no external assessment, no segregation and no teachers. Classrooms are replaced by open-plan computer rooms, designed in a similar fashion to a modern salesroom or call centre. The establishment is open for use during normal office hours, and attendance is monitored using swipe cards.

Learning in such places is based around the completion of projects, unrestricted by a rigid curriculum. The number and nature of projects that an individual takes on, and over what time-scale, would be determined initially during a discussion involving a senior project manager, a careers adviser, the individual and the individual's parent or carer.

Projects must contain some requirement to undertake work placements and, wherever applicable, to gain experience with care in the community initiatives. Each project comes with a guidance pack of learning objectives, resources, useful contacts, website addresses and a study timeline. The onus is on the student to achieve the objectives in the time agreed. Should an individual wish to change direction at any stage, a review meeting would be arranged. Thus the system has inbuilt flexibility, maximising career opportunity and allowing the individual to direct the course of their own learning.

At the end of a project, a student will have compiled a project folder that contains all their work, measured against the agreed learning objectives, reports from their placements, a record of progress meetings with the project manager, and an agreed end-of-project statement. The individual is also required to write an executive summary. There is no need to sit any kind of formally assessed written examination. The whole point is that the individual has ownership, and is not answerable to any external body and the outcome is arguably of far more use to an employer than a list of grades.

There is no reason why access to these establishments should be restricted to any age group. Young adults and parents may also wish to study a particular project, and the whole community would derive benefit.

Tony Thornton is an independent training and education adviser.

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