Ngaio Crequer reports on the efforts of a charity that builds confidence in young people who have effectively dropped out of the school system
New Labour, new humility. Stephen Byers, shadow spokesman for training and employment (as he was then), hoped that the guest speaker, speaking without notes and before an audience of 100, was not thinking of going into politics. He didn't want a future rival.
The speaker who had made such an impression was Heather Dixon, aged 17, whose life has been transformed after help from Rathbone CI, a national charity and training provider for people with special educational or training needs.
At school she was quiet and introverted and not thought of as academically bright. She had a statement of special education needs and great difficulty with literacy and numeracy.
Her teachers believed that Heather would have little chance of finding a job. Her school referred her to Rathbone because it runs a project specially geared to people with special needs, children who are disaffected at school and playing truant, and those who are excluded or at risk of being excluded.
The young people are interviewed and assessed and say which areas of work they are interested in. Rathbone then offers them a four-week, one-day-a-week taster course in a relevant occupation. This offers them a chance to find out about the area of work, see if they like it and get used to the world of work.
Pupils can try a number of different taster courses before they find one to suit them. "Some have no idea," said vocational adviser Dennis Smith. "One wanted to be an astronaut. But we can usually find something that is of interest to them. You have to give people choice."
Once happily settled in, they are given individual counselling by the Rathbone staff, and gradually helped to rebuild their confidence and gain self-esteem. They start to develop practical skills and are encouraged to carry on with their education and to work towards vocational qualifications such as GNVQs, NVQs or SVQs.
Heather was found a work placement in the catering department at the Liverpool Philharmonic and quickly settled in. She has since progressed to Youth Credits and is currently training towards her NVQ level 1. Liverpool Philharmonic are so impressed with her that they have offered her a full-time job when she completes her training.
Paul Hesketh, her supervisor at the Philharmonic said: "Her transformation has been outstanding. Heather has developed so much confidence. She is a hard-working and conscientious member ofthe team who makes a real contribution."
Tony Beattie, aged 16, has been bunking off school "since nursery". "I just don't like it, just sitting there, the lessons are too long," he said. His friend Mark Schofield is also a persistent non-attender and their prospects looked bleak. They were at risk of exclusion for poor attendance and behavioural problems.
Yet they had seen others around them who were unemployed and were not impressed. "They just don't do nothing," said Mark. College did not appeal but they wanted work because they wanted the money. And - this will be of interest to David Blunkett as he sets out his proposals for Welfare to Work - both said they thought it was right to compel people to undergo some form of training, and force them off benefits.
Tony and Mark were referred to Rathbone and both attend one day a week at a small steel-welding company where they enjoy the practical work and are receiving on-the-job training. They are punctilious attenders, and some of their friends are very envious.
Keith Clark, who teaches at Toxteth Pupil Referral Unit, said that projects like this one are vital for young people who have been failed by the system. "It shows: 'Hold on, I don't have to sit in the pub all day, roll my own ciggies, do nothing, I can do something. I did not realise work was like this, it is not all drudgery, it is not just the same as teachers getting on your case saying where is your homework. We are being treated as human beings and adults.' "You are never going to reintegrate Years 10 and 11 into school, but we can reintegrate them into society. These kids are not thick. They have massive gaps because of attendance problems but, if you can give them some skills, they can zoom back in," he said.
Rathbone depends on local employers to provide placements for the students. Co-op Travel in Liverpool is an enthusiastic supporter of the project. Jackie Riley, assistant manager, said: "The people who have come here have been very good. They gain experience and we also run a modern apprenticeship programme. It is nice to know that we are able to help in this way."
The project helps about 250 people a year and, so far, 85 per cent of them have positive destinations after school, either further training, further education or employment.
The project has been evaluated by researchers at the Manchester Metropolitan University. They said one of the reasons for its success was the individual attention given to every student, especially as there were so many different reasons for the young people giving up on school. There was also more pressure to exclude pupils now. The students helped by Rathbone do not exactly enhance the image of their schools.
The project offers young people a positive reason to be out of school, which does not bear the stigma of exclusion. One school commented that for every one pupil helped by the project, there are another ive who are unhappy but not causing trouble.
One teacher told the researchers: "I like (Rathbone's) perseverance. Some of these kids are not so much disturbed as disturbing - there are some teachers who have been forced into early retirement by kids like this."
Anne Weinstock, chief executive of Rathbone, said Labour's windfall tax should be used to help the kind of people identified in their projects. The project is supported by Merseyside Training and Enterprise Council, local education authorities, the single regeneration budget, and the European Social Fund, but she believed there should be a mainstream funding mechanism.
"We want to explode the myth that failing to learn in one environment must mean failing in life," she said. "We want a foothold in the labour market for people disaffected at school, excluded or with special needs, or those who are not going to measure up in the league tables. Some of these people would never have got the chance to get on the ladder, let alone climb it."
Frances McGann, aged 15, is another success story. At school, she liked to "have a go" at the teachers. She had a problem getting on with adults. Now she has a placement with a stationer's and she has changed. "Now you have lunch together with the teachers, don't you?" said the deputy head of her school. Once shy, Frances responded: "Well, they come and sit by us."