28th August, 2018

The Extern Pathways Project, which works across Belfast, is marking 20 years since it first started providing lessons and qualifications to young people facing difficulties with remaining in conventional school or classroom settings.

Since then, the Education Authority-funded project has worked with around 700 young people, helping to educate them in core subjects, as well as preparing them for the next steps in their lives, including entering the workplace or going back into the education system.

Extern staff at the Pathways Project are hoping the public will join in the spirit of celebration for their special family fun day, being held at Girdwood Leisure Centre, north Belfast, on August 29th.

“It’s quite an achievement for such a project in the alternative education arena to reach our 20th birthday,” says programme manager Caroline Rutherford.

“We’ve been helping a whole generation of young people to find new opportunities and fall in love with education,” added Caroline. “While we’ve kept in touch with many of our former students, we would love to reconnect with many more, to see what they’re up to, and how we helped them. That’s why we’re putting out a special invitation to them for this family fun day, where we hope to meet them, and maybe even their own children too!

“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.”

The project typically works with ten young people in each of its three sites, with ages ranging from 14 to 16. The pupils are usually outside of 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%.

“Sometimes people are under the false impression that young people attending Pathways and other alternative education programmes have been expelled,” explains Caroline. “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 every day, just like a school day.

“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 unmedicated.”

The programme 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 emphasizes the personal and social side through a wellbeing programme.

“It’s a combination of awareness of things like drugs and alcohol, healthy mind-healthy body, mental health, suicide awareness, homelessness, sexual health or LGBT awareness.

“We also have specialist subjects they maybe miss out on in school, such as music or drama, while guest agencies come in and do work around areas like cultural awareness.”

The programme also links in with a sister programme within 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.

“It’s about allowing the individual to grow, to fall in love with education again, to be able to feel successful in their outcomes, and for their families to feel they have an opportunity to see their child shine,” says Caroline. “At the end of each year we have a graduation ceremony at each site, where we invite families and professionals who’ve been involved with us over the years to celebrate their achievements. We’d really love to see as many former pupils and their families at our 20th celebration day, and so we are urging them to get in touch and to come and celebrate with us.”