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Single mothers learn how to juggle

TEENAGE MUM Helen Langton, 19, thought her life was over when she became pregnant. "I was gutted and scared. I've looked after baby brothers and sisters but this is not the same," she admits, as she sterilises a bottle for one-year-old Olivia.

"I thought my mum would kill me and I'd be stuck at home with nothing to do all day. Luckily, I got a lot of support."

Although she left school with six good GCSEs, Helen wasn't confident about juggling a job and motherhood.

But when she was three months' pregnant, Helen enrolled on the Lone Parent Project. Run by YMCA Training in Leeds, and financed by Leeds Training and Enterprise Council and the European Union, it gives young mums-to-be, and those who've already had their child, a chance to study while their babies are looked after.

In a brightly-coloured nursery, filled with cots and toys, photos of new arrivals line a wall. A Winnie the Pooh tune sounds from one of the cots while babies crawl around their mums' legs clamouring for attention.

Women, aged 16 to 24, are often referred through the careers service or by health professionals. Students spend 15 hours a week in classes. The roll-on, roll-off programme includes parenting skills, first aid, food hygiene and information technology classes, leading to a Royal Society of Arts technology (CLAIT) qualification, a wide selection of NVQs and work-experience placements.

Statistics are promising. Eleven of the 27 students last year have found employment and six are in further education.

Helen studied for an NVQ in retailing and secured a work placement at a doctor's surgery. She now works full-time as an administrator for an Internet company. "The project taught me to cope with interviews," she says. "They used to scare me but the staff here gave me the push I needed.

"At least no one can accuse me of sitting at home all day," she adds, sensitive to the negative stereotypes of single young mums.

Judy Carruthers, Leeds YMCA centre manager, says: "These young women want to contribute to society. All they need is the opportunity and support." One keen student had to be prised off her computer terminal when she went into labour during a training session.

"We are interested only in those who want to train and return to work," says Carruthers. "Ths is not for people who get bored with a baby and think they can pop into the YMCA for a break."

"We do get some early leavers. Either they change their minds, or their home circumstances are not conducive to learning: for example, a violent boyfriend or drugs abuse. But, overall, we are pleased with the results."

The Leeds Lone Parents Project, which started up in 1998 and is funded until February 2001, has been replicated in Bristol, Manchester and Doncaster.

Staff are currently trying to locate further cash to ensure its future. "Education is very important to me," says Lindsey Marslend, 18, as she rocks her five-week-old son Cameron.

"Admittedly, it's difficult to study with a baby his age but I don't want to end up in a dead-end job," says Lindsey, who has nine good GCSEs. "The parenting skills help you understand psychology and how positively to affect a child's behaviour."

Deanne Paterson, 18, has 11 GCSEs, and a three-month-old daughter, Jade, and has been at the project for four weeks. "My main focus was a child-minding course as I want to work with children. The rest of it is common sense really, but it's good to meet others who understand what you're going through.

"I've had work experience at a primary school and want to go on to train as a nursery nurse or reception-class teacher."

Often, the women start off on low wages. But this makes them eligible for the Government's Family Working Tax Credit, which pays for childcare and gets them out of a dependency trap.

Sarah Murphy, 17, mother of one-year-old Kelsey, enrolled on the project last year and has been working full-time for seven months.

"When I found out that I was pregnant, I was really upset about the thought of not working. I saw this project as an opportunity to fulfil my dream of becoming a hairdresser. It has helped me set goals.

"The tutors asked me to flick through the Yellow Pages and pick a place for work experience. They suggested Vidal Sassoon. I thought there was no way they'd be interested but the salon was looking for full-time juniors.

"I'm on a trainee allowance of around pound;65 a week. It's not great money. But I was so excited, working for one of the top names. It has given me inspiration. Eventually, I hope to set up my own business."

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