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Brussels scheme comes to the rescue

Mark Johnson on a lone parent success story

Eighteen-year-old Antoinette could be the perfect model for the New Labour strategy for tackling unemployment and saving taxpayers' cash. She is both a jobless teenage mother and a former school truant, and the scheme which has come to her rescue is a European three-country pilot programme.

Youthstart, a Brussels-funded project, aims to get alienated and disadvantaged youngsters into education and training by helping them to overcome the psychological and practical obstacles. It could play a vital part in making the Government's plans work.

The Pounds 1.25 million British section of the pilot programme was set up two years ago by the Careers Service, co-ordinated by the Institute of Career Guidance, with little interest from the Conservative government.

They go out to find clients in hostels for young mothers, foster homes and among youngsters who are leaving care or are on probation.

"It's all about reaching out, in every sense,'' says Karen Robinson, an ex-probation officer recruited to manage the scheme. "It's no good expecting these youngsters to come anywhere near offices or listen to suggestions that they should fit into neat careers programmes. They just don't trust institutions and they're usually preoccupied by trying to survive.'' So the mentors concentrate initially on discovering their clients' interests and problems. Then they help each client to work out what he or she would like to do, and to get over the practical obstacles to gaining the necessary qualifications.

The problems range from child-care to housing and transport. The mentors work closely with other agencies, such as the youth and social services and housing departments, to solve them.

"The essential thing is to build up their confidence and get them to realise that they can do something with their lives,'' says Rosie Jones, an experienced Coventry careers officer. "After a time you get round to talking about their dreams. You find out why they think it is hopeless, and then you get them to identify the problems. Then it's a question of looking at the practicalities.

"It's a myth that youngsters want to spend a life on benefit. They just don't believe there's an alternative."

Antoinette, Rosie's first success, was working as a sales assistant when, a month before her 17th birthday, she became pregnant. She ended up in a hostel with other young mothers, who, like her, saw no alternative but a life on benefit.

"It makes me angry when they say we want this, and treat us as dossers. Nobody wants to be stuck at home with no money and being told you're not worth anything."

Antoinette says she had no confidence until she met Rosie. Now she plans to start a business studies course at Coventry Technical College, with the intention of going on to university.

Cathy Bereznicki, chief executive of the Institute of Careers Guidance, says that although the scheme is much more expensive than conventional careers guidance, it should pay for itself many time over in savings on benefit and other social costs. The Careers Service could staff a national scheme within months, she says. "We would need to involve professionals from the other services , but we are ready to take on responsibility for making it work. It is difficult to see how David Blunkett's plans could reach their target groups without us."

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