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Continental trips tempt jobless back to training

Elaine Carlton finds out how Euro-cash is being used to motivate the disaffected young.

When Dunstable College splashed out on hundreds of posters and brochures in a bid to tempt the area's young unemployed to try its radical new training programme, only one person came forward.

But the college's European officer, Nicola Healey, was not about to give up. The college had found European partners and created a course which fulfilled European funding requirements. She was determined to find students to take part.

Mrs Healey and her colleagues took a stall in Luton's Arndale Centre and dragged people in off the streets. "I went up to young people in the town centre and asked them if they fancied a trip to France, all expenses paid, " she said.

"I'd ask them if they had a job and, if the answer was no, I'd tell them I could find them one. It was like dangling a carrot in front of their noses, but it got them interested, which was all that mattered," she said.

In an area where 27 per cent of all unemployed people are aged 16-19, slightly higher than the national average, the college was keen to work out a way to improve the situation. Research by Bedfordshire Training and Enterprise Council showed that young people were most keen to learn information technology skills.

Based on this, Dunstable College and its European partners produced a course aimed at unemployed 16 to 19-year-olds who had rebelled in school and felt rejected by the education system.

Dunstable's YouthStart programme finally kicked off just over a month ago, but the college spent more than a year planning the course, with the help of the local council. In a bid to "Europeanise" itself, the council in Luton wrote to its counterparts in Seville asking if they would join forces on several projects.

When the Spanish jumped at the chance, the pair contacted councils in Dortmund, Germany, and Quimper, Brittany, as well as non-profit making co-operatives in Lisbon and Vale do Lima in Portugal. The group succeeded in their joint bid for European funding but each country's educational body then had to give the go-ahead.

The French government gave approval immediately and the Brittany course kicked off in December 1995, but Dunstable's was a long time coming. "The Department for Education and Employment asked for modifications and clarifications which led to us having to rewrite the course," said Mrs Healey.

Approval was eventually granted in May and the DFEE put up 55 per cent of the Pounds 500,000 needed to launch the course, while the European Social Fund put in the other 45 per cent.

Mrs Healey succeeded in finding 16 students, who now spend three days a week in college. She is never sure exactly how many will turn up on any given day. Two are currently appearing in court as witnesses at a murder trial.

In a bid to make sure students attend, she has taken to bringing them in herself. The students are paid Pounds 3 a day as a training allowance. But they can study for only 16 hours a week or they risk losing unemployment benefit.

The students take computer classes and French lessons - to prepare them for the trip to France. They are also taught interview skills and how to draw up their own CV, and there is a programme of simulated work experience.

"These are not the sort of people to whom you can say, 'We're going to learn to write a letter today'," said Mrs Healey. "This IT course has to be exciting and teach students how to design their own CD covers, adverts and posters. These are people who have rebelled against the system and got themselves into trouble because it was the only way they could feel special."

But Mrs Healey hopes that will change. Already, many of those who spent their time lazing in bed or causing trouble have found an activity they enjoy. If they stay on the course until Christmas, they will be heading for France early next year.

Unlike their French counterparts, however, the British students will not do any work experience as their language skills are not up to speed. Instead, they will spend two weeks seeing the cultural sites, meeting business people and seeing how French life differs from their own.

All this has been worked out by the partners, who, in a bid to improve their courses and learn from each other's mistakes, meet up regularly across Europe. They have produced a working manual, detailing everything from how to select students for the course to how to choose companies for work placement.

Britain was at first seen as the leader of the pack as it boasted advanced vocational training, which was a new concept for many in Europe, Mrs Healey said. Gradually, however, she realised Dunstable had a lot to learn from its European neighbours.

"France and Portugal created a contract between the training institution and the trainee which sets out the duties and responsibilities on both sides and Portugal has introduced financial penalties for those dropping out of the programme," she said.

These two countries also get their students involved in practical work for the college, using them to carry out market research.

It is early days for the British, Portuguese, German and Spanish courses but they have the French example to learn from. The 11 students who took part in the Brittany course were taught the art of selling. They were shown marketing techniques needed for selling in shops, tourism and as sales representatives.

The culmination of their year was a four-week stint in Britain, testing their skills at businesses in Luton. Five are now working in sales, two are looking for a job and two are continuing their studies, though two dropped out before the end of the course.

Dunstable's aim is for its IT students to finish up with at least level 2 national vocational qualifications, enabling them to get a job. But Mrs Healey is realistic and admits that only about 60 per cent will go that far.

"The course is in the early stages right now and it is hard to say what will happen," she says. "Some will lose their motivation and drop out, but many will finish the course.

"The next stage is to work on developing their communication skills and give them the positive attitude they need to get a job."

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