Charity celebrates 20 years of putting young people on path to success
AN alternative education project that supports young people facing difficulties remaining in mainstream schools is celebrating a landmark birthday.
The Extern Pathways Project, which works across Belfast, is marking 20 years since it first started providing lessons and qualifications.
The Education Authority-funded project has worked with around 700 young people, helping to educate them in core subjects.
It also prepares them for the next steps in their lives, including entering the workplace or going back into the education system.
The project typically works with 10 people in each of its three sites, with ages ranging from 14 to 16. The pupils are usually outside mainstream education for a variety of reasons, and referrals are made by the Education Welfare Service in conjunction with the host school if their attendance slips below 85 per cent.
It offers English, maths and ICT up to GCSE level, while some participants have taken their education even further to sixth form.
Aside from the conventional subjects, however, the programme also emphasises the personal and social side through a wellbeing programme.
It also links in with a sister programme with Extern known as Moving Forward, Moving On, which offers additional support for the next three years once their studies in the Pathways programme are complete.
People were sometimes under the impression that young people attending Pathways and other alternative education programmes had been expelled, said programme manager Caroline Rutherford.
"That's not the case, though, because it's a dual registration with their home school - they still have them on their books but they are in a sense `loaned' to us. It's a full time, five day a week programme. They come in at 9.30am and finish at 2.55pm, just like a school day," she said.
"The reasons for referral have also evolved over the years. At the beginning it was often those with behavioural difficulties that couldn't be sustained within a mainstream setting - anger management issues, drug or alcohol dependency, suicidal ideation or self-harming. Some may have been quite severely bullied and for that reason have dropped out of the school system completely, while some have been the bullies themselves.
"Over the last six or seven years, however, we have a lot more referrals where young people present with social and emotional behavioural difficulties, so a lot of that would stem from mental health issues, anxiety, undiagnosed learning difficulties, dyslexia or dyspraxia, or a young person being on the spectrum for autism, or maybe diagnosed with ADHD and going un-medicated."
More than 500 people joined in the spirit of celebration for a special 20th birthday family fun day at Girdwood Leisure Centre in north Belfast.
"It's quite an achievement for such a project in the alternative education arena to reach our 20th birthday," Ms Rutherford said.
"We've been helping a whole generation of young people to find new opportunities and fall in love with education.
"It's also great to be recognised within the education sector because while we do deal with quite small numbers in comparison to a mainstream school, our success rate in enabling these young people to access new opportunities and employment as a result of the work they have undertaken as part of Pathways, is really something to celebrate."