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Last Updated: Friday, 15 October, 2004, 17:32 GMT 18:32 UK
Mixing study at school and college
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

Claire would leave school early to train full-time if she could
By the age of 14 a great many students are bored by school.

Academic study is no longer for them and getting a job is the priority.

Teachers are left to deal with disillusioned teenagers who may become disruptive. Nobody gains; everybody loses.

A government-appointed working group led by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, wants to do away with this.

Instead of keeping all children in England in school all week, he wants them to do more vocational training, should they wish to do so.

They would spend some of their time at college, being treated like adults rather than children.

Skills shortage

But they would still have to reach a certain standard in "functional" maths and literacy - which employers say today's youngsters often lack even if they have English and maths GCSEs.

Could this mixed approach ignite enthusiasm for professions like catering, building and hairdressing, while improving their school work?

Could this also help solve the UK's chronic skills shortage?

Yvonne Richards runs a pioneering programme for 14 to 16 year olds at New College, Nottingham, which is used to dealing only with students aged 16 or above.

For two hours a week the youngsters take time out of school to learn something work-related.

By the time they finish school, they have qualifications in jobs as varied as beauty therapy and plumbing, alongside their ordinary GCSEs.

Aaron, trainee hairdresser
I don't like school much and this is a lot better
Aaron, hairdressing student

Ms Richards said: "Before they started coming two years ago, a lot of staff thought it would be like teaching at St Trinian's when the 14 year olds turned up.

"Far from it, though. They have been a pleasure to teach. They are highly adult and very motivated."

Inside the hairdressing teaching centre, which takes up an entire floor, students address teachers by their first names, as they receive tips on technique.

Claire, 15, said: "I like it a lot better than going to school. It's more relaxed and you get to do what you want.

"If I could I would do this full-time instead of school. I've always wanted to be a hairdresser and this is helping that."

Work placements

Fellow student Aaron, 16, said: "I don't like school much and this is a lot better. I want to get out and get a job.

"This course is good for me because I get a head start in hairdressing. I want to go on and do more qualifications in it."

Some students also take half a day a week off school to spend in a workplace, such as a restaurant or a salon.

Critics might argue this is just a chance for lazy teenagers to get out of the classroom.

Matthew, like the others, has to keep up with school work

However, students have to make up the lost lessons in their own time or lose the privilege.

Ms Richards said: "This whole thing is about raising esteem for the professions we teach. You should want to be the best you can at whatever you do.

"It's important to keep the key skills, like maths and science, going too. So the students here have to work more - not less - hard than normal to keep everything going."

Matthew, 15, is doing a GNVQ (general national vocational qualification) in catering and wants to become a chef.

Small groups

He said: "I come here and get a feel for what it's like. You get treated more like a grown-up than at school.

"You don't have to wear a uniform or follow orders. But I still think it is important to do the GCSEs at school and get the best grades you can.

"It's quite hard to catch up with the work at school but it's worth it."

While at college the students work with lecturers in groups of 10 to 12, compared with the classes of 25 or so they are used to.

They do not mix with older students as they are classified as "children".

They do, though, learn beside children from other schools, to tone down any possible "tribalism".

Aaron, catering students
Most people aren't as certain as me about their futures, so I have an advantage
Aaron, catering student

The Learning and Skills Council funds the project, with contributions from the schools and the college.

Aaron, 16, another catering student, spends a morning a week at a restaurant in Nottingham as part of his course.

He said: "It's a totally new experience. I get to meet new people who are enthusiastic about what I'm doing.

"They show me what to do. One day I could be working with fish and the next on another section.

"I do quite like school but I've wanted to be a chef for a long time. We do food technology as a GCSE subject at school, which is useful, but it's good to do this too.

'Bright sparks'

"When you know what you want to do it can be difficult to go back to school for lessons. Most people aren't as certain as me about their futures, so I have an advantage."

All the 14 to 16-year-old students are chosen by interview as places are over-subscribed.

More than half of this year's "graduates" have signed up to continue there.

It is their type of academic and vocational mixture to which Mike Tomlinson aspires.

If the government accepts his proposals, they still will not come fully into force for up to a decade.

But Ms Richards, who sat on one of the Tomlinson advisory groups, thinks her experiences bode well.

She said:" These kids have been real bright sparks. There's so much energy about them.

"Employers want them to have GCSEs and skills. This is a good way to enthuse them and prepare them for the world of work."

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