Youth workers in Devon are taking a chance on excluded teenagers with promising results. Huw Richards reports
AT THE age of 15, Lucy has defeated the conventional resources of the schools system. She has attended 22 schools and late last year was excluded permanently for a third time. She has also been in council care for the past two years.
Yet for the past few weeks she has been working towards four GCSEs including English plus the Royal Society of Arts key skills qualification. Her dislocated life and schooling typify the stories of pupils in the Chances programme at Dyrons Youth and Community Centre, Newton Abbot, Devon.
She says: "I knew other people who had come here. They said it was good. There was some leeway and you were treated with respect. Some of the people who run the scheme have been through problems themselves, so know what you are going through.
"They listen to you and care and when we do something good we get praise."
The scheme has now been running for 18 months. The youth workers who run it argue that it gets results that the mainstream cannot achieve, and does so inexpensively. Mike Stevens, the project co-ordinator, says: "A place in a residential school costs anything from pound;27,500 to pound;55,000 a year. Chances costs pound;135 per week. We provide full-time education and work experience for our pupils for no more than the cost of five hours' individual tuition a week." It is managed by a full-time youth worker. There are also three further youth workers and a group of teachers and secretaries.
Since local government reorganisation it has been funded by Devon County Council. But it encountered early scepticism from local agencies, headteachers and other centre users. Kevin Henman, senior community education tutor for Teignbridge district, said: "A lot of the heads had not worked with youth workers before and were doubtful about us. Most have now been won round."
To counter this scepticism, the project would like to be visited by the Office for Standards in Education. Mr Stevens said: "We have shown that we can deliver an effective alternative to pupil referral units and we would like that to be recognised."
Having taken 10 of the most disturbed and disruptive Year 11 pupils in Devon last year, it can point to an attendance record of 85 per cent. Dave Shotts, one of the teachers employed by Chances, says: "At the beginning we sit down and do an individual education plan, setting small but achievable targets. For the first few weeks that target may simply be 'regular attendance'."
Several have obtained full-time jobs - Lucy was offered one within three weeks of starting work experience and had to explain she was below school-leaving age. One has even overcome distaste for mainstream education sufficiently to register for a course at Exeter College.
One pupil had to be excluded after a series of incidents, but Mr Stevens says: "He has kept in touch and comes into the centre for evening activities."
The advantages of the Chances approach are recognised by Richard Haigh, head of neighbouring Combes Head College, a 1,400-pupil 11-18 comprehensive. He says: "You can't be seen to accept disruptive behaviour, even if the pupil responsible has immense problems and other pupils would accept the reasons for that tolerance if they were explained. It would threaten the implicit contract of discipline. A youth worker does not carry that sort of baggage and can deal with it in a different way."
This does not mean accepting poor behaviour. Mr Stevens adds: "One of the first things we teach is the meaning of the word 'no', but the important thing is that it is done fairly and consistently. There is a clear and secure framework, but you can negotiate. If a pupil has had a row at home and been thrown out on the streets, it is understandable that they might want to talk about that first thing rather than attend a lesson. But they have to negotiate that."
Small groups, the one aspect of Chances life mentioned by every pupil, facilitate that sort of contact and relationship-building.
There are ironies in Chances' success. It isn't only the life experiences that propel many youth workers into a profession with low pay and status that give them empathy with excluded pupils. Mr Henman says: "Youth workers are excluded in their own way, not taken seriously or given professional respect."
He and Mr Stevens recognise the irony that one of their selling points - cost-effectiveness - is rooted in the poor pay and conditions of youth workers. Waiting for contracts to be renewed annually is hardly conducive to retaining staff or building a project.
Mr Haigh has no doubt the project works and sees it as a prototype for others: "Devon is looking at the possibility of devolving money for teaching children out of school, such as those who are excluded. Most of that is spent on individual tuition and there isn't that much per school. But clusters of school might pool their money and create something similar to this. I think it would be highly effective."