There is a way back to the learning fold for those who turned their backs on school. Rosie Waterhouse reports.
THE "lost generation" of disaffected youth who leave school with no qualifications and little hope of a job is being given a second chance.
Youngsters aged between 16 and 18 who have been failed by the conventional school system are being coaxed back to education by the prospect of improving their own skills and earning money - a pound;40-a-week training allowance, a pound;50 incentive bonus for starting the course and another for going on to further study or training.
The Learning Gateway, introduced in September, is part of the Government's Connexions strategy for young people announced in the Learning to Succeed White Paper.
The programme is aimed at teenagers who have drifted away from learning because they lack the right skills, qualifications or attitude.
They include those who are "disaffected by attitude" for instance not in school or work, or who are moving between dead-end jobs: or "disadvantaged by circumstances or characteristics" such as homelessness, health problems, care history, family difficulties or offending behaviour.
The aim is to help more young people move more easily from school, college or unemployment into a course or job and training.
One of the key options in the Learning Gateway is a life skills programme of at least 16 hours per week for three to four months to equip youngsters with the basics needed to do further courses or training.
These include reading, spelling, mathematics, and other skills employers find important such as communication, using numbers, information technology, working with others, and solving problems. The programme also helps students to pinpoint job areas of interest that they could do well in and learn how to present themselves and their strengths to others.
Every participant has a personal adviser to listen and help identify the support needed, discuss the most suitable job options, encourage a postive attitude and boost confidence and self-esteem.
They will also help with making claims for benefits, completing applications to employers and colleges and honing interview skills. The student could then move onto another education course or to work-based training such as a Modern Apprenticeship or National Traineeship.
The Learning Gateway projects are run jointly by training and enterprise councils and the local careers service and one of the first has been set up in west London with life-skills courses run at West Thames College in Isleworth, Middlesex.
The college decided to build on experience gained from the Fresh Start scheme, a link programme for disaffected 15-year-olds who have ceased to attend school, and from the New Deal, unemployed 18 to 24-year-olds.
So far, 26 youngsters potentially at risk of drifting into poverty, or dead-end jobs have signed on for a tailor-made life-skills course.
Apart from their personal development programme, they can also spend one day a week trying several different vocational "tasters" that introduce catering, computer-aided design, media and sound technology, hair and beauty, engineering, fashion design and personal cmputer maintenance.
In addition, the college offers a popular personal fitness programme and any basic skills and dyslexia help they need.
Michelle Smith, 17, Christina Rose (pictured) and Billy Durkin, both 16, were among the first recruits. Nervous at first, all are now enthusiastic Gateway learners.
All three left school without taking GCSEs: Michelle at 14, Christina at 13 and Billy aged 15. Billy admits that he was excluded after a succession of disputes with teachers. Since leaving school all three have drifted between unemployment and part-time jobs.
But now they are focused on their courses. Michelle and Christina are both doing IT, PC mainteance and engineering electronics and Billy is brushing up on English, mathematics, IT and sports.
The course has given them the confidence to plan the next stage of studies. The girls intend to move on to full-time courses in IT and business administration. Michelle plans to do office work and Christina to become a receptionist. Billy wants to take the GCSEs he missed at school.
"Most kids like us wouldn't dream of going to college," said Michelle. "But I'm really glad I heard about this course. For those who have left school with no education it really helps. Hopefully, I will get the skills I need to get a job.
"I am building up my IT skills and my confidence," adds Christina. Billy is looking forward to further study - perhaps a Business and Technology Education Council award in public service - and one day to become a fireman or join the army. In the meantime all three have built up their confidence so much that they are joining an outdoor-activity weekend next month in the hope of being picked for an Operation Raleigh expedition overseas.
This shows how their horizons have been broadened, said Chris Palmer, Learning Gateway co-ordinator at West Thames College.
"It's a very exciting and rewarding challenge to try to re-engage these young people who have drifted away from education believing it had nothing to offer them."
The key to success, she said, is the amount of tutor time they have. "That is why they are flourishing. For the first time in a long time someone is sitting down and talking to them and actually listening."
Contact - initial contact takes place between a potential Learning Gateway participant and whoever has identified the young person as needing support.
Referral - eligibility is established and a personal adviser chosen.
Individual Development Plan - to be drawn up by the adviser and the young person, including initial assessment. The adviser will decide when this stage ends and when the client is ready for entry into life skills or another learning or training option of a minimum of 16 hours per week.
Life skills - this stage begins when the young person starts the life-skills programme, taking at least 16 hours, so they are eligible for a pound;40-a-week training allowance and pound;50 incentive bonus.
Progression - moving into mainstream learning and receiving another pound;50 incentive bonus. The personal adviser will continue to support the client for as long as necessary to ensure that he or she does not drop out.