No doubting St Thomas's success

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Young people out of school in Dudley have an alternative to a life on the dole, reports Sue Jones

BYLINE:On a hill opposite Dudley Castle in the West Midlands, stands a housing estate built between the two world wars. Its streets are right off the main roads, steep and narrow and turning suddenly at unexpected angles, rather like the routes through life of some of the young people who have pitched up at St Thomas's community centre.

They have been identified by Prospects, the local careers service, as being at risk of slipping through the net. They are not yet ready for regular employment, mainstream education or a training course. But Brian Parker, deputy chief executive of Dudley training and enterprise council, until April, believes that an unusual partnership between the TEC (now the learning and skills council) and a small local charity, can get them on track for success.

Some of the young people, through illness or social problems, have missed substantial amounts of schooling; others have been in trouble at school or with the police, or have been involved with drugs. "They are the hard-to-reach people," says Trevor Campbell, a qualified youth worker and head of the life skills course at the centre. "They come here because it's a more comfortable place than school. It's not threatening."

At St Thomas's they go on individually-designed literacy and numeracy courses, partly using materials from Dudley College. But, as Trevor Campbell emphasises, basic skills cover far more than technical competences. The students tackle drugs awareness, nutrition, food hygiene and budgeting.

Body language and appearance are covered, as well as grammar and punctuation. Through role-play, they learn how to meet people confidently, use the telephone and communicate effectively. Clothes have been donated for interviews and the centre's hairdresser teaches them how to make the best of their appearance.

Being part of the St Thomas's community centre means that Trevor and his team of two lecturers and temporary volunteers, have access to all the facilities on site - previously a small secondary school taken over by the charity. There is a sound studio with recording facilities, an IT room, a cafe and a sports hall, while the day nursery and local pensioners' group let students experience working with children and the elderly.

St Thomas students Karen and Louise, both want to progress to childare courses. They are proud of their success with the computer modules, but need encouragement from Trevor to acknowledge their personal skills. Both are excellent attenders, even though Louise has to take a long bus ride and Karen walks for 45 minutes each way every day.

Before they can move on to work experience, employment or further training, students' self-confidence and independence must be built up. They start by taking responsibility for their base in a substantial hut with a workroom with two electric typewriters, dictionaries, stationery for job applications and books. The walls are decorated with their own rules, photographs of their outings and certificates of the course modules they have passed. They organise their own coffee in the kitchen, and the games room has pool and table tennis. There is a shower cubicle they can use before going for interviews.

The hut was once a boxing club and Trevor developed the theme by supplying a punch bag - anger management is another useful skill!

Organising their own activities is a key element in building up their confidence. "Whatever they do, they have to plan it," says centre director Janet Hilken, though she admitted to apprehension when they offered to organise a wedding reception for a member of staff. But they succeeded, and the current ice-skating trip and fashion show must be a piece of cake by comparison. A previous group planned and budgeted the decoration of the games room, with stylish and striking graffiti.

But success doesn't come easily, Job placements don't always work out and personal crises can undermine progress. Weekly and monthly individual reviews, in conjunction with the careers service, constantly re-adjust goals. The nominal 15 weeks at 16 hours a week is not always enough; steps must be patiently re-traced and confidence rebuilt.

Dudley TEC, and now the local LSC, values the special skills and enthusiasm of Trevor Campbell's team, but recognises that a small charity like St Thomas's cannot cover all the work of a large-scale training provider. So in his commitment to the partnership, Brian Parker has provided administrative backup for such matters as training standards, health and safety and checks on employers for work placements.

But the joint commitment usually pays off. Louise recognises what the course has meant to her. "It's worth it because I'm getting a career, not just signing on."

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