The best bet for today's jobless

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Welfare-to-work, or the New Deal, is the Government's major programme to help unemployed people into work. It is allocating #163;300 million over five years in Scotland and represents the Government's biggest single additional commitment north of the border since taking office in May.

For 18 to 24-year-olds (there is a separate undertaking for the over-25s) who are unemployed for six months or more, and receiving the Jobseeker's Allowance, there will be a gateway phase of up to four months providing intensive help from a personal caseworker. This will support the young person in the choice of one of four options (see panel).

The Employment Service is acting as the lead agency for the new deal, working closely with the Scottish Office. It is aiming for delivery through partnerships with employers, local authorities, FE colleges and so on. Senior officials assert that the Employment Service "cannot, does not want, and is not expected to deliver new deal on its own".

The current sequence of new deal conferences, and focus group meetings with jobseekers, is giving the various partners an early opportunity to influence the design, development and implementation of the new deal programme, taking account of local and regional characteristics. This is in marked contrast to the process for previous initiatives which invariably were handed down as a prescribed package. What is also refreshing about the new deal is the Government's upfront call from the start for FE colleges to be key partners.

The timetable for implementation is very demanding. Tayside is to be the pathfinder area for the new deal for 18 to 24-year-olds, commencing in January, followed by a nationwide start in April 1998. The Cabinet sub-committee, chaired by Chancellor Gordon Brown, is meeting fortnightly to sustain the momentum and priority. This pace is to be commended, not least in the interests of the young people waiting to get started.

FE colleges are being called upon to support and help deliver the new deal, so what can we be thinking about and doing? An obvious first step is to meet the Employment Service district manager to obtain information about the new deal, to register commitment to the programme, and perhaps visit a local job centre. This could be followed by a briefing for key college staff, both lecturing and support colleagues. A college-based task group could draw up a work plan for taking forward the new deal and for integrating necessary action into the next development plan cycle for the college. The work plan could include an audit of current activities and experience of a new deal nature, as well as a check of existing partnerships and networks which could support development.

Colleges should be well-placed to provide training to a recognised qualification for the employment, voluntary sector and environmental task force options. The intention is that young people should train to Scottish vocational qualification standard, but it is recognised that an SVQ level II will not necessarily be achieved over one day a week in a six-month period. For some jobseekers, provision may need to be made beyond SVQ level II or equivalent standard.

Colleges should also be ready to deliver the full-time education and training option, which might be designed to deliver core skills possibly embedded in broad-based vocational programmes involving simulated work experience and work placements. Colleges can draw upon their extensive experience of delivering innovative learning for employed people, for disadvanta ged young people, for those with special educational needs, and for community-ba sed outreach initiatives. Current experience of partnership working with organisations such as local enterprise companies and Prince's Trust Volunteers should be relevant to the development of the New Deal.

The gateway phase is seen to be a vital part of the New Deal. Personal caseworkers could be drawn from a number of organisations, including colleges with experience of providing a rigorously independent guidance and support service. The principal focus will be helping young people access an appropriate option at the appropriate time. Colleges providing the full-time education and training option may be called upon, at short notice, to provide taster courses of various opportunities. The emphasis will have to be very much on the individual jobseeker's needs. Follow-through support in and beyond completion of an option will be made available.

Every effort should be made to organise reception, induction and programme delivery in a college so that new deal students are not stigmatised. In most colleges the average age of students has risen markedly in recent years so this, along with the supportive adult atmosphere, should assist the process of settling into the college way of life.

Nevertheless the new deal is also about widening participation in, and encouraging access to, further education which will require colleges to review their student support arrangements, including child care. Colleges will also have to come to terms with young people who are in the programme due to an element of compulsion, since they may lose benefits if they opt out of the new deal.

Arrangements for funding new deal education and training have still to be finalised. It will be important that revised grant-in-aid funding for colleges encourages the flexibility and responsiveness expected of colleges, and supports those colleges which are working effectively in areas of social and economic deprivation.

The new deal will aim for the highest possible levels of quality. We owe young jobseekers nothing less. It should be possible to use existing quality assurance mechanisms, perhaps with some adaptation, rather than create an entirely new audit and performance indicator regime.

Much good work is currently being undertaken by FE colleges for this age group with similar aims and outcomes under existing programmes and funding; colleges can draw upon this experience for the new deal but, at the same time, should sustain their focus on such programmes.

The new deal is different. It is a five-year programme with a significant level of funding, and with wholehearted Government commitment. The gateway phase is an innovative investment introducing full-time counselling support with emphasis on building self-esteem and self-determination with each young jobseeker. It discards the deficiency model. Partners and jobseekers - currently 15,000 18-24 year olds in Scotland - working together can make a difference.

Michael Leech, principal of Stevenson College in Edinburgh, is the sole educational professional on the Government's New Deal taskforce in Scotland.

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