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Hello cruel world

Dear Chris,

I am 17 years old and am having constant arguments with my mum. My parents divorced last year and since then, my mum has found a new boyfriend and I hate him. He's always round at the house and if he isn't, he's at the pub.

I've tried to tell my mum how I'm feeling, but she doesn't seem to listen and always takes his side. I just can't take any more of the arguments with my mum and I'm seriously thinking about running away.

Please help.


It's Friday morning at Kincorth Academy, Aberdeen, and the group of Secondary 3 "agony aunts" poring over Claire's problems are confident they can help. As participants in the final session of a six-part Housing and Leaving Home pilot programme run by Aberdeen Cyrenians' Cygnet Project, they are using the skills learnt from earlier sessions to help the imaginary youngster, whose experience is all too real for many of today's teenagers and has been highlighted as one of a range of situations which can lead to homelessness among young people.

The girls join the rest of their classmates who have been discussing other scenarios which may lead to leaving home in a hurry: parents disgusted to find out their 17-year-old son is gay; a youngster badly beaten by his father; a boy caught smoking cannabis. As they compare notes on how they would advise those affected, the pupils have plenty of ideas to share with Cygnet (Cyrenians Generating New Education and Training) support workers Sean Stronach and Sarah Cruickshank.

In response to "Gavin", whose parents can't cope with his homosexuality, one group has a number of suggestions: "It's important to try to keep talking to your parents . . . tell them you're still the same person. "

"Why not call the Gay Helpline? They'll understand what you're going through and can offer you support."

"Think carefully before you do anything rash like leaving home. Where will you go? Do you have enough money?"

Claire's agony aunts are equally helpful:

"Try to talk to your mum calmly and quietly about how upset you are about her boyfriend's behaviour."

"Explain to her that you think he's trying to behave like your dad and that you resent it."

"Maybe you can ask your dad to help by talking to your mum."

Sean and Sarah are pleased the pupils have picked up on the importance of communication and seeking third-party support - themes which have recurred throughout the programme, reinforcing the message that young people need never feel isolated by their problems. Their friendly, non-judgmental approach - Sarah, now 22, experienced homelessness at the age of 17 and tells her story at the outset of the course - has succeeded in building a positive relationship with the youngsters, who have shown a keen interest throughout.

It appears that the innovative programme, delivered to this one class as part of the personal and social education curriculum, has served its purpose in raising the pupils' awareness of key issues involved in leaving home and helping them develop the knowledge and skills required to help ensure that when it does happen, it is a positive, rather than a nasty, experience.

Kincorth Academy is one of 12 secondary schools in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to welcome the Cygnet Project into their classrooms. Funded by the National Lotteries Charities Board under the youth issues programme,the three-year project was set up last spring to provide a comprehensive advice and information service for young people in the area, working as part of a local multi-agency support network. An important part of this has been the one-year pilot to support schools in providing education for S3-S4 pupils on leaving home and housing - subjects which have not traditionally been taught in school.

Project manager Mark Armstrong explains: "Leaving home is something the vast majority of young people do as part of growing up and becoming independent, yet compared to other areas of personal and social education, such as health or careers, the issues they face on leaving home - particularly how to find housing - are not often addressed in school.

"At a time when more and more young people are facing problems with accommodation when they leave home, the need for housing and leaving home education at an early stage has never been greater. Research commissioned by Scottish Homes in 1996 found that young people did not demonstrate a developed understanding of the housing system in Scotland and that the majority underestimated the cost of private sector rent and housing prices.

"Our pilot education programme, now drawing to a close, aims to identify the most appropriate and effective way to raise awareness of these issues. Formal evaluation will be carried out this month, but the feedback we have already received from schools, and from the youth projects and community education centres we have also been involved with, has been extremely positive."

Doreen Gray, form and guidance teacher of the pilot class at Kincorth Academy, says the programme has greatly enhanced PSE lessons, and not only for her pupils. "The course has been extremely useful in that it has filled a gap in the personal and social education curriculum, but has also brought together topics we have already explored, such as health, relationships and drugs. The pupils have responded very well to Sean and Sarah and we have all learnt a great deal about the many issues which surround leaving home, finding accommodation and accessing support networks if support and advice is needed."

Doreen and her colleague, drama and guidance teacher Gillian Milne, would like the subject to be taught to all S3 pupils.

"We now hope to disseminate what we've learnt, so that the school can continue the good work and develop its own teaching materials, based on those used by the Cygnet team," says Doreen.

This, according to Mark Armstrong, is just what the project hopes to encourage. "We are a very limited resource and it's our aim to help teachers develop their own knowledge of leaving home and housing issues, so they can deliver the subject in a way most appropriate to their pupils, " he says.

Cygnet's own teaching materials are based on a workbook produced by housing charity Shelter, which has been updated and adapted to include local information. The programme is structured as six 40-minute activity sessions, comprising homelessness (the myths and reality; why young people become homeless); reasons for leaving home (positive and negative); possible conflicts arising at home (building relationship skills); housing options for young people; budgeting and what to do when things go wrong.

Using flip charts, activity sheets, questionnaires, group discussion and, if appropriate, drama, Sean, Sarah and their colleague, trainee support worker Willie Matthew, aged 20, who also has experience of homelessness, encourage youngsters to think carefully about what is involved in leaving home. For example, they are asked to describe their dream home; to work out their weekly expenditure if they were living in a flat, and to think about how drugs, health, disadvantage, discrimination and relationship problems can affect how and where people live. The Kincorth Academy class also opted to act out flat-sharing scenarios, involving conflicts between flatmates.

"They really threw themselves into it, and showed a good understanding of how these types of conflicts arise and what they can lead to," says Sean.

Cygnet has been warmly endorsed by the Scottish Council for Single Homeless, whose national housing education project, HEID, which takes a multi-agency approach to promote the establishment of housing education within the formal Scottish curriculum, was launched last October by minister for education Brian Wilson.

"Cygnet is a very good example of housing education in schools and is one of several projects being carried out at local level in different parts of the country," says project manager Annie O'Rourke.

"HEID is now working closely with the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, the Scottish Office Education Department and local authority education departments to ease the subject of housing education into schools at a national level, and we are currently developing a number of education tools such as lesson plans, workbooks, a theatre in education project and teacher information and training sessions, to help facilitate the teaching of the subject," she adds.

Pleased with the enthusiastic response to their problem page exercise, Sean and Sarah draw the final session at Kincorth Academy to a close with praise, encouragement and a reminder to call in and see them at the new Aberdeen Cyrenians Advice Centre in Union Street.

"What we've done is to sow the seeds. They may forget the finer details about housing options and budgeting, but at least they now know where they can go to find help," says Sarah.

The pupils, reluctant to leave, are in no doubt about the value of the course, which they say they have looked forward to every Friday. Fourteen-year-old Angela Milne sums up the general feeling.

"Six weeks ago, I wouldn't have had a clue about the different agencies you can go to for help if you're having problems at home, or you need advice on where you can stay. If I'd read Claire's problem then, I'd have said, 'It's up to you'. I know a lot more now."

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