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Off the booze but not off the peg;Community and youth;FE Focus

LAST year, during a drinking bout, John Kennedy - a 43-year-old former soldier, landscape gardener, bus driver and security guard - tried to stab a policeman.

After a period on remand, he then attempted to kill himself by jumping from a supermarket roof. Over a 25-year period, Kennedy's alcoholism cost him his marriage, his family, his work, his health - and almost his life.

This year, with the help of the Alcohol Recovery Project and regular attendance at the charity's Kings Cross drop-in centre, Kennedy has quit drinking. In settled accommodation with his girlfriend, he has long-term hopes to become a TV repair man, or even an alcohol counsellor.

Kennedy is one of the many former alcoholics living in London whose life may be turned around by the new Supported Training for Alcohol Rehabilitation project.

Through an innovative partnership between Southwark College and the charity, STAR has been designed to help former alcoholics improve basic and key life skills, while also addressing their vocational training needs.

STAR builds on the ARP's "day programme" where clients join in open support groups, learn anger management and acupuncture for detoxification.

Each course will involve 10 clients and 100 will benefit over 18 months. Clients will then choose from courses such as drama or art therapy to add to a standard package of adult literacy and computer skills.

Participating clients must have remained sober for six months or more, but given time, ARP hopes to put all its clients through the intensive five-week programme.

Recovering alcoholics are excluded from mainstream education and training because they are seen as difficult and unlikely to succeed. Amanda Seller, ARP's fundraising and communications manager, says that their clients are "highly articulate, humorous, strong characters, but in a college environment, people find them a bit much".

They are often extremely vulnerable; social rejection lowers their already severely damaged self-esteem, and provides an excuse to return to the bottle.

Under-funded alcohol charities are traditionally hard-pushed just to get clients off drink and ensure they are adequately provided for. But the college partnership is enabling the charity to offer clients a highly structured transitional stage, a supportive step on the long road from dependency to work.

Meena Wood, head of the School of Continuing Education at Southwark College, says that when approached by Seller in October 1998, she seized the opportunity because it fitted the Government's drive for partnerships in the context of widening participation and lifelong learning.

"Our role as training provider is to facilitate and upskill ARP staff," she says. "ARP will benefit more than us: some of their clients may eventually come to us, or they may go to other colleges. The important thing is that they will get access to vocational training."

Seller had the idea for the project after hearing about the Adult and Community Learning Fund, a pilot scheme intended to reach socially excluded learners, it is being administered by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and the Basic Skills Agency.

She approached five London colleges to find a partner agency, but was disappointed when all except Southwark suggested an off-the-peg course.

Seller and Wood joined forces to devise from scratch a project that would address client needs. They put in a bid, and received around pound;100,000 for a two-year project.

Seller was very impressed with the way the fund was devised: "You were encouraged to be creative and take risks, so long as you got the end result."

They ended up funding a very wide range of schemes. She is hopeful that success stories will mean the fund is put on a permanent footing.

"Clients will be asked to set individual outcomes," says Tracey Bell, who manages the ARP project in Southwark. "We see this as a stepping stone to accessing services in the community. We hope a high percentage will go on to a New Deal voluntary scheme or a college course."

"Nationally, I'm not aware of more than five or 10 projects like this," says Wood. "I don't think there's anything quite so innovative as what we're doing."

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