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Hidden side of life in the country

Rural living may be idyllic for the rich but for deprived young people it can mean isolation. Martin Whittaker reports

The word quaint could almost have been invented for Shaftesbury. This historic North Dorset town was the setting for a famous 1970s Hovis advert, in which a youngster pushed his bicycle up its cobbled streets to the strains of the New World Symphony.

Largely affluent and overlooking rolling hills, it's not a place you would associate with homelessness. Yet Toby's, a young people's project in the town centre, has 23 homeless people on its books. Teenagers here also suffer poor public transport, low aspirations and lack of access to post-16 education and training, says Simon Thomas of Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole Connexions youth advice service.

"The options locally are fairly narrow for a lot of youngsters if they don't want to go into the sixth form," he says. "Many of our youngsters travel 30 miles down to Bournemouth and Poole to go to college - and the bus service is awful."

Shaftesbury's young people's project is one of the case studies highlighted by Connexions and the Countryside Agency in a new joint guide to supporting young people in rural areas. The new guide says drop-in centres such as Toby's are a cornerstone of the strategy to develop "one-stop-shops" for advice and guidance in the countryside.

Last year just 52 per cent of Shaftesbury upper school students stayed on in full-time education, compared with 72 per cent for the county as a whole. Some 37 per cent went into full-time employment, 2 per cent did work-based training, and 3 per cent were "not settled" in education and training. Mr Thomas says many rural young people get stuck in low-paid, dead-end jobs. "There's certainly a need for ensuring that they are in appropriate education and training post-16."

Toby's was started seven years ago in a former shop next to the town's Jobcentre. The project revolves around a coffee bar, refurbished and decorated by young people themselves and staffed by volunteers. It works with a host of agencies to support youngsters in any way they need, whether it's support for the homeless, help with benefits, medical advice, education and training issues or drug problems.

Toby's was already well-established by the time the national Connexions youth advice service for 13 to 19-year-olds. was launched in April 2001. It was keen to get involved. Connexions now part-funds the centre's manager and runs projects including a peer mentoring scheme at Shaftesbury school and outreach work in the community.

Young people using the centre have access to three personal advisers. The service is also working with Yeovil college to set up an outpost offering work-based learning in Shaftesbury.

The centre's project manager Rosie Dawson believes centres like Toby's are an effective way of reaching teenagers in trouble. Once the initial contact has been made, for whatever reason, it can ve developed to encourage learning. "When a young person presents us with a homelessness issue, when that has been overcome we look at education and training. We have many examples of young people who have been engaged at one level, then moved on through the system."

According to the Countryside Agency, limited opportunities for young people in rural areas stem from difficulty in accessing key services, including education and training. There have been calls for a "sparsity factor" in funding to recognise the special circumstances of rural areas, similar to the extra funding that reflects higher wage costs in London and the South-east.

But this now looks unlikely following an investigation into the case for extra rural funding by the Learning and Skills Development Agency. Its research concludes that learning culture is actually thriving in the English countryside. It finds that people living in the most rural areas are just as likely to participate in as those in towns and cities. The study, focused on vocational learning in 10 rural areas.

The agency says the findings cast doubt on claims that people in rural areas are disadvantaged by a lack of learning opportunities. But it did find that some social groups - particularly those living in council flats or houses - were less likely to participate in learning than their counterparts in more urban areas.

Mick Fletcher, research manager at the agency, said the findings made it hard to sustain a case for a rural premium to be introduced into Learning Skills Council funding.

"There may be some rural communities where there are specific issues for local LSCs to address, but we didn't find a general rural problem," he said.

But, even if there is no general rural problem, it does seem that some disadvantaged social groups are worse off in the countryside than elsewhere.

Mr Fletcher said: "The fact that some social groups seem less likely to participate in a rural context is a worrying finding and deserves further study."

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