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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 April 2007, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
How to get pupils learning again
By Hannah Goff
BBC News education reporter

Truancy patrol
Disengaged and bored students often end up truanting
It is the holy grail for any conscientious teacher - how to get the most disengaged of pupils to re-engage in learning.

In the past the answer was to mould the pupil to the school - and if they wouldn't bend, throw them out.

But as more and more teachers commit to personalised learning, increasingly it is the school that is doing the changing.

Bedminster Down Secondary School head teacher Marius Frank has had a lot of experience tackling disengagement at his inner city school in Bristol.

Three-quarters of his pupils are in the bottom 1% for achievement. Many of them will spend two years doing GCSEs and come out with nothing, he says.

One of the most disengaged kids that we had, we discovered, was a primary carer for a grandmother
Marius Frank
Head teacher, Bedminster Down Secondary School

"There's not a lot of value put on education around here - we struggle with English as a first language.

"In communities like ours, although people work hard, the majority of adults have got to their adult working life not needing skills or education, as such.

"They might say to their kids, 'Why are you doing your homework? You don't do that here - you do that at school'.

"Part of what we have to do is to say that the present and the past is no longer the future."


Tackling this aversion to education "head on" is not necessarily the right way to proceed, he says.

"If we make it a class battle, it's not going to work.

"So we have responded by getting the school to orientate around how pupils develop skills rather than how much knowledge they accumulate."

The school now offers a different sort of qualification, alongside GCSEs, which is based on challenging pupils to complete tasks demonstrating these skills.

The Certificate of Personal Effectiveness, or Cope, is a GCSE equivalent and requires the student to complete 12 challenges for which they get credits.

These come under headings like improving performance, problem solving and working with others.

In a typical middle class home people are given pats on the back, they're given books
Maggie Walker
Asdan educational charity

"It gives you a lead in, a buy-in to get through to that individual," he says.

And more often than not, having achieved something with Cope, pupils then go on to tackle more traditional qualifications like GCSEs and even A-levels, he says.

In the meantime they get a GCSE-equivalent for the skills they actually want to have.

Mr Frank says that since offering the qualification, which he calls an NVQ in attitude, his school has seen a 5% improvement in its results.

Another advantage is that because of its community focus, Cope allows pupils to get "Brownie points" for things they are already doing but not being recognised for.

Mr Frank said: "One of the most disengaged kids that we had, we discovered, was a primary carer for a grandmother.

"We used the Cope programme to re-engage them.

"Because they are getting credit for the things they can do, they soon get credit for the things they thought they couldn't do.

"We simply break it down and say, 'how are you doing that?' and suddenly that person's self-esteem rockets."

Boosting confidence

Maggie Walker of educational charity Asdan, which designed the qualification, says boosting a child's confidence is key to breaking the cycle of disengagement.

She says a lot of pupils who become disengaged lack encouragement from home.

"In a typical middle class home people are given pats on the back, they're given books.

"There was an area where I worked where they had very few books - people had maybe 10 books in the home.

"But this qualification turns young people from those who say 'I can't' into those who say 'I can'."

'True potential'

Director of the National Black Boys Can Association, Dr Cheron Byfield, agrees that boosting confidence is one of the important factors in getting youngsters interested in education again.

Her organisation exists to raise the achievement and aspiration of all black boys in the UK - some of whom have fallen behind their white peers educationally.

"If you keep on telling someone they can't achieve, well eventually they end up believing that," she says.

"We say, 'look at what you can do, look at your true potential and be who you aim to be'."

Police officer with teenagers
Children who disengage often end up getting in trouble with the police

But it is not all about boosting confidence, says Dr Byfield.

Her organisation takes a holistic, four-pronged approach to raising achievement and aspiration.

This consists of empowering the boys themselves, empowering their parents, linking in and working with mainstream education and working with the community - especially by highlighting the achievements of positive black role models.

Unfortunately, she says, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works with every boy.

"We have been amazed at how different children are.

"Some of the boys we have been working with now for years, and it's taken a good while before we have made any real progress.

"Others only needed to go on a one-day conference to come back really inspired. One day and that was it!

"A parent of one called me and said, 'My son has not been the same since he went on the programme. He has a completely different mind-set.'

"The thing to remember is we are dealing with real people and they are all different," says Dr Byfield.

And it is these differences that the educators are trying to tackle with personalised learning.

What is not yet clear is whether teachers are equipped with the skills and the physical resources to deliver it.

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