High hopes, high hurdles

11th July 1997 at 01:00
Allen Edwards visits prime Welfare to Work territory and estimates the task involved.

Plant Hill High School in North Manchester is surrounded by bleak post-war council estates where 20 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds are without a job.

The Government's Welfare to Work programme has raised high hopes that young people in schools just like Plant Hill will be helped. But implementing the scheme will be far from easy.

The battered system-built 1950s school serves an area that is typical of much of Manchester. The city has the second highest take-up of free school meals in England and Wales. School-leavers from the comprehensive have struggled to find work after a number of nearby factories closed and jobs were lost in those that remained.

Some pupils at Plant Hill have given up hope of ever finding work and see unemployment as a way of life. Many have one or both parents out of work as well as brothers, sisters and friends.

The Welfare to Work scheme aims to tackle this long-term des-pair in what Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett has described as a "crusade" to get young people into work.

Those out of work for six months will get a subsidised job with a private-sector firm, voluntary work with a charity or a new environmental task force, or full-time education or training. This is to be followed up by further careers advice and the option of further training at the end of the scheme.

If young people refuse to take up any of these options, they will get no benefit. The scheme is to be piloted in 10 per cent of the country from January and will be fully implemented from next April.

Plant Hill's headteacher, Alan Schofield, said there is a desperate need for new opportunities for school-leavers.

But he said: "Some parents will tell their children: 'It's only a scheme, son, they are using you.' The bottom line is that there aren't enough jobs."

Leeanne Frater, aged 15, hopes to take a media course at college. Welfare to Work might help her if she is unemployed after taking her GCSEs at Plant Hill next summer.

She is desperate not to end up on the dole like her parents. Her father has not worked regularly since breaking his wrist while hod-carrying two years ago, and her mother lost her job as a care assistant three years ago.

But Leeanne is confident that if she works hard she will be able to get a good job, and wants to move to another part of Manchester. She said: "If I didn't have a job I'd be desperate. Being unemployed is hard, particularly with a family.

"When my mates go out and I can't afford to, I feel left out. I buy clothes with money I earn from babysitting."

But she added that other young people with unemployed parents suffered more - many gave up hope. "If they have no prospects, they turn to crime."

Mark Quigley, 15, wants to take A-levels, go to university and become a teacher. Mark's brother was unemployed for two years, but he is critical of those who give up looking for work. "People who give up are those who haven't got a clue. They are the ones who just mess about, following in everyone else's footsteps."

He believes that anyone who turns down both a job and all of the Welfare to Work options should be denied benefit.

Roy Jobson, chairman of the Association of Chief Education Officers and Manchester's education director, was very enthusiastic. But he admitted he has yet to see the detail of the scheme and there was a range of pitfalls. It would be difficult to turn people's attitudes around and improve their basic skills and computer literacy in the space of a few months. Welfare to Work training also had to be of a much higher quality than that supplied under the previous government's schemes.

Mr Jobson agreed that it was vital that there were enough jobs for those who completed schemes to go on to. He hoped that partnerships between local and national government and the private sector would help attract new employers using Government grants.

He said: "I feel very optimistic. Thank God somebody is prepared tackle this. We cannot be put off by potential problems.

"This is a high hurdle to jump and in some areas, where you have got second and third generations of unemployed people, a whole culture has to be changed. "

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