Youth workers all over the country are turning their attention to Hackney to discover how to run a successful mentoring scheme. Martin Whittaker reports.
ON THE office walls at Dalston Youth Project, pictures of Tony Blair seem to be everywhere - a reminder of the Prime Minister's visit to the award-winning education and mentoring scheme in late 1997.
Since the Government cast an approving eye over its work with disaffected youngsters in east London, the project has grown. It is now being replicated in Manchester, Bath, and the London boroughs of Brent, Lewisham and Lambeth. There has also been interest from Stafford and Dublin.
Its director Paul Levy said: "It's a bit like being in a goldfish bowl. It's all very exciting, but at the same time we have to work on two project cycles per year. Fifty young people with very difficult and challenging behaviour are coming through those doors. Whatever we say to visitors we still have these young people coming in who need a lot of intensive work and support."
The scheme is in the renovated basement of a former United Reform church in the centre of Hackney. Its mentoring programme has brought impressive results with 15 to 19-year-olds who are involved in crime or on its fringes, and with backgrounds of exclusion or chronic truancy. Going by its track record, around 75 per cent of them will land a job, college or training place by the end of the programme. Following this success the Government is now funding a similar scheme at Dalston for younger children at risk of exclusion from school.
The mentoring project was set up in 1994 with funding from Crime Concern. Hackney has very high levels of youth crime and unemployment, as well as the the capital's biggest proportion of one-parent families.
"Hackney has improved since then, but at the time, there were a number of failing schools and a lack of confidence in the school system. And there was a high perception that young people were committing the majority of crime," said Mr Levy.
Under the scheme, youngsters with little or no direction in their lives get one-to-one support from a trained adult mentor for a year. The mentor will get to know them and help them develop and achieve educational or vocational goals.
This can even mean getting them out of bed in the morning. "We are talking about a lot of kids who are not particularly well supported. Getting them to a job interview or to college is quite an achievement. Sometimes we do have to physically get them up."
Youngsters come in voluntarily. "We feel our most effective outreach strategy is word of mouth, and a lot of kids turn up at our door. We always take their details and they need to be eligible. They have to be offending or at risk of offending.
"Sometimes they overstate their involvement in crime just to get on the programme. We have to say no to some young people."
Mentors are chosen very carefully and again, they are volunteers. The majority come from the local community and the project is looking for certain qualities which illustrate stability. Someone with problems in their own lives, going through a divorce, for example, is unlikely to be a good role model.
And it's quite a commitment. For 12 months they have to win the trust of a challenging youngster who might be on drugs, or for whom violence and crime could be a way of life. These relationships are cemented by a three-day course in rural mid-Sussex, where both mentors and youngsters do tough adventure activities. The youngsters are usually better at it than their mentors, and they get a chance to shine.
Meanwhile the mentors get training and often it's an opportunity for them to develop their own careers or change direction.
Steve Isaac, 37, from Tottenham, had worked in a variety of jobs. He was unemployed and looking after his three daughters when he applied to become a volunteer mentor with the project.
Now he is pursuing mentoring as a career and is looking to set up his own youth project. He was teamed up with a 15-year-old lad who had been apprenticed to a Premier League football club until he failed a drug test. The youngster was directed to the Dalston Youth Project.
"He was extremely challenging," said Mr Isaac. "But in the end I managed to get him on a college course which suited him down to the ground." The youth now has his football career back on track, with a place at a London football academy.
"You are trying to acquire some trust from a total stranger. The end result is that they should get themselves back into education and training, and if not that, then at least they're more objective about the way they're leading their lives."
During their year with the project, the youngsters' educational needs are identified. There are regular accredited courses in basic skills, information and communication communication technology, as well as evening activities in music and drama. And the project also forges links with local businesses to get youngsters placements.
But in this project's success, there lie dangers. While it has raised its profile following the attention from Government, there is also the issue of autonomy. While the Home Office is keen on promoting such mentoring schemes as part of the Government's "tough on crime" policy, Paul Levy is anxious that they remain independent from the justice system.
"I am concerned about the effectiveness of this if young people are forced to come on it. If it's a matter of saying we want them to go onto this scheme to prevent them getting further into trouble, that's something we would contemplate. But for a young person to be sent here as part of a punishment, I think it would be an uphill battle.
"He who pays the piper calls the tune. And one of the strengths of the project is that it's multi-funded.
"We have to uphold our independence from the youth justice system, so that we are not part of the punishment."