Hostels with a difference

4th July 1997 at 01:00
HAVENS AND SPRINGBOARDS: THE FOYER MOVEMENT IN CONTEXT. By Colin WardCalouste Gulbenkian Foundation Pounds 8

Stephen Barber on an overview of the foyer movement - hostels with on-site staff to help its residents into training and work

At this distance, the 1950s and 1960s seem like a golden age for most young, working-class people growing up. In those days of full employment they could leave school on Friday and start work the following Monday, and have sufficient surplus spending power to finance the youth culture of clothes, music and entertainment. Training was available and a levy on all employers funded schemes from those who would provide them.

Now it is all very different. What was the experience of a minority has become that of all too many young people. The recession of the early 1980s dramatically reduced real opportunities for young people, and the withdrawal of state benefits in 1988 forced many into destitution. Numerous training schemes followed one another without leading to real jobs. concern is rising about the growth of an underclass of unemployable young men, and the new Government has made the move from welfare into work one of its key priorities.

In all this it is important to hang on to the fact that research has established that what young people want is a job, a home, a family and a car - the same things as the rest of us. Young people with homes and aspiring parents get a good start towards these things. But those whose families have failed them or whose parents cannot help them, easily fall out of education and training, and sometimes out of a home as well. Hopelessness and despair set in, which lead to crime.

There is no one solution to this complex set of problems. But Colin Ward's new book sets out one of the solutions: the foyer programme. A foyer is a hostel for young people that also has staff on site to help them get themselves organised and into training and work. The term "foyer" is taken from the French for hostel, and both France and Germany have been running these schemes for some years. The movement has now spread to this country, with the YMCA leading the way; this is one of the first books to set out how they work.

How are foyers different from simple hostels? The on-site staff, the action plan worked out individually for each young person, regularly reviewed and renegotiated, provide one set of answers. But more impressive still are the attention to what Ward calls the "soft skills", because they do not easily lend themselves to assessment and performance measures. These include encouraging young people to present themselves positively, taking care over the mix of residents to develop a positive peer group culture, and to let the success of one rub off on another. There is no dependency culture in the foyer movement, but rather a stressing of rights and responsibilities together.

For the young people the success of the movement can be summed up by the word respect. Accustomed to being pushed around, offered non-jobs and worthless training, they suddenly find themselves taken seriously. And many of them are able to move into work, thereby saving the state large amounts of money in the long term.

Of course the scheme will not work for everyone. Part of the success of the movement is precisely because they do not aim to cater for the most difficult cases: drug addicts or young offenders. In practice they do take a certain number of people with these problems, but the staffing needs go up and the positive culture is threatened if more than a small number are clustered together.

The funding problems of foyers are extremely complex, largely because of the number of different government departments and other agencies that need to be drawn in. The Labour Govern-ment, which has shown some interest in foyers, may smooth the funding path. But ultimately, it is not simply a question of getting hold of more government money. As John Drake, of the Norwich foyers, says: "A foyer, like a theatre or a decent hospital, is part of the urban fabric, to be cherished just because it is there to meet needs. If any community has the will to look after its young, then the Government is merely a pump primer."

* Next week: TES2 Feature

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