Seema Rahman has a very important message for any FE college wanting to know why 16 to 19- year-olds are missing from education. She tells the story of her life-crisis in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice. "I left home when I was 14. I was under a lot of stress - I just couldn't cope. I started living with people who took drugs and crack. I started taking it myself. The friend who gave it to me, he's in prison. He got caught robbing the house of some people he knew - they identified him."
Just turned 17, Seema lives in Hackney in a sheltered hostel for teenagers at risk. Colleges must address the needs of young people like Seema if they are to succeed in widening participation and make a positive impact on youth unemployment, crime and social exclusion. A stone's throw from the gentrified Georgian town houses of the urban rich is some of the most concentrated deprivation in Britain. Council estates where male unemployment is 21.5 per cent compared with 4 per cent nationally, where street crime flourishes, and where drug abuse and teenage pregnancy are facts of life. The Government has poured money into raising standards in schools and has linked benefits to job training, but a recent Ofsted report on post-16 provision in Islington and Hackney - the first time the inspection service had scrutinised this age group - found 15.4 per cent, one in seven, were not in education, employment, or claiming benefit.
The education watchdog's report described prospects for the area's 4,200 16-year-olds as bleak. Social deprivation indicators place Hackney as the fourth and Islington as the tenth most deprived boroughs in England. Just under 60 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals, and in Hackney, where more than 90 languages are spoken, close to half the population are from ethnic minorities.
The report highlights a 65.4 per cent staying-on rate into full-time post-16 education, compared to a London average of 73.5 per cent and 68.4 per cent nationally. It criticises the lack of liaison between schools and colleges, and weaknesses in guidance and information available. Most importantly, the report says there is "no unified strategy for education and training provision for 16-19 year olds as a whole".
Compounding the organisational deficiencies in many cases is students' own lack of basic skills - literacy and numeracy. National figures show just under a quarter of 16-year-olds leave school with GCSE grades below C. In Hackney, it is one third: one in eight leave school with no qualificaions of any kind. For functionally illiterate and innumerate youngsters, it is a Catch-22: without basic skills they are unable to enrol for college courses; without qualifications they can't find work.
Figures from Whitehall show that nationally some 157,000 16 to 18-year- olds were not in education, training or employment last year. The one in seven posted missing by Ofsted are typical of many of Britain's urban areas. There are many pockets of rural deprivation and unemployment as well.
Colleges are making a huge effort to identify and enlist 16-year-olds at risk of slipping through the system. Many run basic skills catch-up courses alongside vocational training. Chrissie Farley, principal of Hackney Community College, is attempting to create courses more relevant to young people's needs, shifting resources into outreach and providing for disadvantaged groups such as young, single mothers.
The college is identifying and working with refugee organisations - Hackney is a destination for many of London's new migrant communities. The Refugee Council estimates between 14,500 and 16,000 refugees have taken up residence in Hackney between 1983 and 1999, although it admits the difficulty of keeping tabs on immigrants means its figures are a broad estimate of the problem.
Hackney College's plan includes building stronger links with schools to raise pupils' aspirations and finding positive role models to demonstrate the range of careers that young people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds can aspire to. But Ms Farley admits that colleges are limited in what they can do. Far too many young people associate the negative experiences of school with institutional education and give colleges a wide berth.
The two boroughs have many private training initiatives run by national and local charities. Just off the Kingsland Road, Springboard Hackney is a basic skills education centre. This is where Seema comes for her lessons. In a classroom, a dozen young people sit struggling with computers or worksheets. Seema unpacks her bags and starts work on a "number power" worksheet - basic calculations like sums and percentages.
Peter Barnden, Seema's tutor, says the students' decision to stay the course or drop out is finely balanced. "One of the class was traumatised by a gang-related murder recently. These people have a lot to deal with even if they're not living on the streets. A lot of them have run away from home. It's a lot to deal with - housing issues, paying bills, meeting social workers." He estimates around 20 per cent will drop out before the course ends. "One day a youngster won't turn up - no explanation - and I know that their life has hit a rocky patch."