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Guiding hand of the guru

Lewisham college has set up a support service to help students find their feet after they have left FE. Joe Clancy reports

So many students drifted back to a London college to seek advice about the next step in their lives that it has decided to become their guru.

Instead of saying goodbye to students when they finish their course, Lewisham college will be inviting them to return at any time for advice, guidance and support.

It has set up a special service called Guru (Guidance Until you no longer Require Us), with two full-time counsellors to help leavers cope with the new challenges they face.

It is designed to ease the transition into work or further studies after leaving college. It also provides information and advice on many different topics to "keep them on track".

Lewisham's principal Ruth Silver said Guru is a key part of the college's mission: "more than a college offering more than a qualification".

She said: "Our intention is not to let go of our students until they can stand on their own two feet. The college is not a destination, it is a gateway, and some need help getting through the gate.

"Our students have a relationship with Lewisham. That relationship, and the responsibility the college has to it, does not end when they leave."

The college in south-east London claims the Guru service is unique in the FE sector, though it emulates the careers service traditionally offered by universities to their former students.

Guru began functioning in mid-July and stayed open throughout the summer to help leavers. Currently, there are 20 leavers seeking support, eight of whom want to go on to higher education and 12 who are looking for employment.

Mark Crawley, assistant director of learning services, said: "One of the things we noticed was that a number of our former students kept dropping back to see tutors and to seek our support services.

"We needed to formalise the support we were providing so we could respond effectively.

"Sometimes it's about pointing people in the right direction for support and in other cases it's about providing that support ourselves."

The college is in one of the most deprived communities in the country, he said, and many students do not have much external support in their lives.

It has a high unemployment rate and the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the country.

"We think we are the first FE college to set up this sort of service.

Universities provide a careers service for graduates years after they have left. We are replicating that in an FE context.

"It costs us money, about pound;70,000 a year, that we don't have special funding for, so we fund it from our general income."

The Guru service, he said, supplements the work of agencies such as Connexions which provides support for the under-20s.

"The average age of our students is 30. We are part of a network of local advice and guidance services for adults that is called the Information Advice and Guidance Partnership."

Andrew Jones, Guru co-ordinator, said: "A lot of students come to us because it is more comfortable to come here for advice rather than an outside agency."

He said that Guru provides assistance in job searching, applications, compiling CVs and interview techniques. Advice about what to expect when starting work, managing those first weeks at work, and workers rights, is offered.

For those continuing to study, information on financial support, how to make the most of university life and what options are available if things go wrong are just a few other services available.

He added: "We have a face-to-face interview with them to identify their career goals. Some people are very specific about what sort of work they want to do.

"We provided very intensive support for two students who decided to apply for university at the last minute. Others we helped were panicking a bit about how they would manage as a university student, how they would settle in and find part-time work."

Jo Sheehy, a 40-year-old mother of six, says Guru is helping her look for the first job she has ever had after completing her NVQ2 in business administration.

"It is teaching me how to apply for work and giving me the confidence to do so with mock interviews and upgrading my CV," she said.

Femi Adeboye, 19, turned to Guru when he left Lewisham in the summer with no idea what he was going to do next. "I was lost," he said. "I hadn't applied for university and I didn't even think it would be possible for me to go.

"I went to Guru in early September to see what options I had, and I am now at Greenwich university studying sociology. I know I wouldn't be in education now if it wasn't for Guru's help."

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