A glimmer of hope for the new deal

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
The Education Minister forbids his civil servants to refer to it as a "scheme". The word is tainted: too many of those lie behind us. No, the new deal is to float free of "schemy" baggage. This is a project embedded in the Government's flagship policy of Welfare to Work, and the new deal will be different.

Or will it? Four routes are envisaged, education, subsidised private sector employment, voluntary work, an environmental scheme, and no fifth option of life on benefit.

There is some obvious boggy ground. The long-term unemployed are as variegated a bunch of folk as the rest of us. Among the over-25s, perhaps 20 per cent have had bad luck. They will be upskilled and quickly employed. Then there is the middle band of people, perhaps 60 per cent, who are to greater or lesser degree deficient in confidence and in basic and teamwork skills. To become employment ready, this group requires patient, skilled and above all tailored approaches. Then, of course, there are the 20 per cent who live on the edge of the black economy or crime, demotivated further by pernicious and ever present benefit traps.

Among the young unemployed there is an intractable core. Children from the unemployment culture can be early alienated from school. They have the poorest basic skills, the least motivation, the lowest confidence and self-image. They simply have never envisaged themselves and success in the same frame. They were not "raised with praise".

Ministers have already admitted that four choices may not be practicable everywhere. This raises the spectre of recalcitrant teenagers dragooned into colleges, or directed unwillingly towards luckless voluntary organisations. Turning attitudes around and allowing people to experience individual success have to come first. The new deal is still sketchy in detail, but it will not even succeed as well as some previous schemes such as Restart if it does not recognise that creating motivation is somewhat harder than generating opportunities.

Nor will it succeed if its bottom line is only to get the client into some (any) sort of a job. The test of success will be whether the lone mother, helped into low-level employment, is still cleaning the council lavatories 10 years later. If she sticks it, she has done well personally. But how much better if continued learning opportunities and encouragement offer her progression and the confidence to move on.

The new deal plans to deliver through partnership. But it is not altogether promising that control rests in the hands of the Department for Education and Employment and its jobcentres (which do not appear to be heading for Scottish control). We are seeing a reversal of the reform of 1991 that brought retraining budgets north from Sheffield, and gave them to Enterprise under the wing of the Scottish Office.

On the other hand, perhaps there is a glimmer of optimism. The employment service together with Scotland's education business partnerships is to be given the lead role and control in delivering Welfare to Work, implying something of a learning curve for them. For there are many organisations in Scotland with substantial outreach experience to those failed by their initial school experience. Community schools, colleges and voluntary organisations have wide experience of collaboration and partnership in the work of helping damaged human beings towards a positive self-image.

Perhaps the jobcentres and the business partnerships now have the opportunity to look and learn, as well as to co-ordinate and organise challenge budgets. Perhaps they will listen to Scotland's practitioners and take note of the people skills, the partnerships and the networks already flourishing out there. Here's hoping.

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