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Inner-city lifeline

Maureen McTaggart and Val Hall (below) report on European boosts for equal employment opportunities. A London project is using IT links to help people back into employment after a long time out of the workplace. The first thing you notice on entering the somewhat grandly-named Financial Services Sector Training suite in Islington is a photograph on the wall of manager Amanda Francis hanging upside down on a perpendicular rock face.

Next to it are pictures of smiling and grimacing FSST students engaged in activities from abseiling to canoeing while on a week's residential course, an important element of the free course in information technology, business administration and finance run by FSST, says Amanda Francis. "For women returners and the long-term unemployed from the local community, the education system has in some way passed them by or let them down."

The scheme evolved from a two-year pilot project established in 1989 and is 45 per cent funded by the European Social Fund and 55 per cent by Islington and Haringey councils, with Islington picking up the lion's share. Childcare is paid (including any extra provision when students are on work placement), travel expenses, and luncheon vouchers. Flexible hours and playgroups during holidays can be arranged.

Each year 20 students are recruited from 100 applicants in the Islington and Haringey areas with the help of a local community group, the Unity African-Caribbean Association, by means of advertisements in The Voice, job centres, libraries, surgeries and schools. "We test basic literacy and numeracy," says Amanda Francis, "but formal qualifications are not required. The most important criterion is that we have to be sure they really want to go back to work."

During six months of in-house training, the students cover word processing, spreadsheets, databases, manual accounts and book-keeping, computerised accounts, electronic mailing systems, personal development, job search skills, health and safety, and spend a week on the reception desk. They then complete a three-month work placement and emerge with City and Guilds business and administration NVQ Levels I, II and III.

At the same time, the students run a thriving "practice firm", Triangle Supplies (office equipment), in their networked commercial training room. Practice firms began in Germany in the late Fifties and now flourish in over 1,200 European institutions. They mirror a real company (the "sponsor firm"), which maps out business procedures and acts as mentor, and trade with other practice firms in the UK and Europe in their own enclosed economy (no real products or money) according to strict commercial principles.

Students spend two weeks in each department - purchasing, sales, marketing, accounts and exportimport - and, with foreign language dictionaries at the ready, deal day to day with incoming post, faxes and telephone calls, chase up bad debts, send invoices and process orders using e-mail. A central UK office, Practica, acts as a bank and helps with big jobs like mailshots or offers advice on, say, customs and excise.

The chief advantages are that students make decisions as a team and are highly motivated, says senior training officer Juan Brisset. He foresees a time when "the majority of the training will revolve around the practice firm as it can be taken to any level".

The experience stands students in good stead for their work placements with local companies. Their tutors assess them fortnightly and often discover them teaching tricks of the trade to permanent staff. Former student Donna Pollard, who is now student support officer at FSST, had been unemployed for two years when she started the course. As a former bus driver, she "had communication skills and could handle money, but computers scared me.

"However, this course is so well structured it didn't boggle me at all, the tutors gave us step-by-step guidance, and have produced simple-to-follow manuals for every package. They constantly guided us towards becoming a group; each person had different strong points, so we helped each other."

This emphasis on team building and leadership skills is reinforced at the activity week in a converted farmhouse near Corfe Castle, Dorset. "Getting them to leap off buildings and cliffs shows them they can achieve anything they set their minds to. We now time it to give them a shot of confidence before they start their work experience," says Amanda Francis.

"Once they have finished, we try very hard not to lose people. We run free refresher courses so they can update their IT skills and they can come in at any time to update their CVs and use the new packages."

FSST also offers commercial training either on-site or at trainees' workplaces and a wide range of support services. All revenue is ploughed back into updating the IT equipment.

Juan Brisset says: "We are looking to develop the Internet element and teleworking on future courses so that if students can't get here, they can do the work at home."

The course's success rate speaks for itself, as within three months, 80 per cent of the students are working or in full-time higher education.

Current student Mallika Jayawickrema, who has an eight-year-old son and wanted to get away from a dead-end job in retail, sums up the major benefits: "The course makes you realise that you are capable of doing it and you will have a better chance of getting a job at the end."

* Further information: Juan Brisset, FSST, Third Floor, 393-395 City Road, London EC1V 1NE Tel 071-713 5166.

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