Drop-outs brought back into fold;Community and youth;FE Focus
Social exclusion might be the new buzz phrase, but the experience behind it is anything but new to Merthyr Tydfil. The town might even claim to have invented it. Once the industrial powerhouse of south Wales, much larger than either Swansea or Cardiff, it has declined over a century to a population of less than 50,000.
Among its poorest districts is Gurnos, a large council estate typical of south Wales larger towns, its problems replicated by Cardiff's Llanrumney and Swansea's Townhill. Inevitably at the 1,250-pupil Pen-y-Dre High School, which serves the estate, some young people become disaffected and drop out, breaking their link with the school.
The school's FreshStart programme, run in partnership with the youth service, colleges and the Gurnos and Galan Uchaf Regeneration Partnership, was aimed at around 30 pupils it feared were on the verge of dropping out. Pupils spend two days in school and three out in colleges and workplaces. Headteacher John Williams explains the scheme had an unexpected and remarkable by-product: "It has also picked up pupils who had completely dropped out, some we hadn't seen for years. We are now providing a programme for everyone in the year group. It completely exceeded our expectations. Having started with 30 pupils, the programme now has nearer 50."
The project is one of eight operated under the Youth Work and Schools Partnership Programme which are reaching the end of their first year. Thirteen local authorities have placed bids for the second annual tranche of pound;300,000, operated by the Welsh Youth Agency on behalf of the Welsh Office. Five will be chosen.
Mr Williams has no doubt the involvement of a three-strong youth worker team is a key element in the programme's success: "It gets away from the institutional side of the school. School policies still apply, but it means we can offer flexibility at the same time as being part of us."
Whatever the flexibilities, one aim is always in view: "The pupils must be kept within the world of education and training."
Pen-y-Dre's success typifies the increasing role played by youth work in Welsh education. The partnership programme was launched by Welsh education minister Peter Hain at the same time as the Learning is for Everyone Green Paper in April 1998.
The Welsh Office was prepared to delegate powers, subcontracting the programme to the Welsh Youth Agency. National Assembly policy is still to be settled, but continuity must be likely.
Projects like this - others are the youth assembly to run in parallel with the National Assembly and the Children and Youth Partnership Fund, which funds extra youth workers for partnership programmes - are looked on with some envy by English observers such as Doug Nicholls, general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers' Union. "There is a much more holistic sense of lifelong learning, and an awareness that youth workers can succeed where other agencies have failed."
That view is echoed by Liam Kealy, head of services at the Welsh Youth Agency. "The youth worker is central to retaining young people's commitment to education. They have no statutory powers over the young people and so the relationship is different. They can deal with them informally and challenge them in different and useful ways."