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Steve O'Gara has formidable stamina and a sense of humour to match. His cheerful determination has driven him to become a cross-country runner for England, with energy to spare for the equally daunting task of running the Scotswood Attendance Project.
The project aims to ease 22 chronic non-attenders and school phobics back into the classroom. Scotswood is at the heart of Newcastle's devastated shipbuilding quarter on the west bank of the Tyne, where children are growing up with two generations of unemployment behind them.
On the way to the Scotswood Support Centre, where O'Gara's project is housed, you pass rows of boarded-up houses and shops. At mid-morning on a weekday, groups of men and boys are hanging around with time on their hands.
Poverty, hopelessness and aggression scar Scotswood. Arson is rife and the firefighters are often pelted with bricks. But when you walk down the street with O'Gara, a 29-year-old qualified teacher, you become connected to the community that survives. He greets and is greeted warmly by most of the young people he passes. He is respectful, upbeat, fit and smart.
He wants to put his charges on track to a more hopeful future. During the two years he has managed the project, there has been full attendance from the pupils. "I have to turn them away," he says.
The project works with West Gate Community College, the local 11-18 comprehensive, and the educational welfare and psychology services to provide an alternative curriculum covering a range of vocational and physical activities with the core skills of literacy and numeracy at its heart. It is this curriculum, combining basic literacy with creative approaches to language - poetry sessions, storytelling, information technology - which attracted the attention of Boox For Us and its National Year of Reading funding.
Boox For Us combines the expertise of libraries and youth workers. It is run by the library-based Well Worth Reading scheme and the National Youth Agency and aims to tackle social exclusion through reading, reaching young people who would be unlikely to find their own way to libraries.
Six projects which work with 13- and 14-year-olds, including Scotswood, have been given pound;500 each plus advice on developing their activities. The results include visits from writers, storytellers and poets; the creation of individual reading profiles; contributions to Boox magazine, which publishes reviews by young people for young people; and building lists of books to help youngsters through difficult times.
"Youth workers have people skills and librarians have book skills," says Miranda McKearney of Well Worth Reading. "Put them together and you can get some really exciting initiatives."
O'Gara, who sees his role as both teacher and youth worker, is sure of his priorities. He has used the Boox for Us money to serve the basic literacy as well as the creative needs of his pupils. He has bulk-bought Toe by Toe: a highly structured, multi-sensory phonetic approach to literacy so that his pupils, many of them non-readers, can have their own copies. He has taken a group to the local Rising Sun Country Park where they enjoyed a session with local storyteller Malcolm Green, making camp fires and nettle soup while listening to stories.
"It was all right, that nettle soup," says George Oliver, one of O'Gara's 14-year-olds, with a note of disbelief in his voice. But ask him what he likes best about attending the Scotswood centre and he will tell you straight: "Reading's the best thing, because I couldn't read when I came."
Johnny Kelly, 15, a boy with behavioural and family problems, was a non-attender at the area pupil referral unit - but he turns up without fail to O'Gara's classes. He was eager to demonstrate his reading achievements to me, unabashed by the fact that he is struggling with distinguishing words like "slim" and "slum".
It helps that the other pupils encourage him every step of the way, as they did when he first learnt to swim. O'Gara says: "It was great seeing these big lads clapping and cheering when he swam his first width."
With part of the Boox funding O'Gara has also established a library curriculum. The part-time Scotswood library opens especially for his pupils once a fortnight. They have been shown how to use the catalogue, to retrieve non-fiction books and use CD-Roms. "These kids would never have come into the library before, but now at the end of the day we can't get them out," says Louise Hollingsworth, the team librarian who has worked with the Scotswood group.
O'Gara has also introduced poetry sessions. These include comic verse, including Allan Ahlberg's collection Please Mrs Butler, but also more serious work. Shawn Armstrong, 14, wrote in Boox about WH Auden's Funeral Blues: "The poem calms you down and makes you realise how important your friends and family are."
The attendance project is part of the Scotswood Area Strategy, a registered charity which grew out of community concerns after riots in 1990. O'Gara had worked with children in care after a sports studies degree and a PGCE at Brunel University, and was taken on to devise a curriculum which would keep young people who were not attending school off the streets and eventually ease them back into West Gate.
The project has grown through its success. O'Gara started with eight or nine 13- and 14-year-olds and now has 22 aged between 12 and 16, five of them girls. He has also taken on an assistant.
In September most of his current Year 9s will go back into West Gate on a dual timetable, and three will return full-time. Five Year 11s taken on in February who had previously not attended school for over nine months sat their maths and English GCSEs this summer.
West Gate, which has received Social Regeneration Budget funding, is using pound;100,000 to create an alternative curriculum for one-third of its Year 10 pupils from September. Headteacher Phil Turner sees the Scotswood project as playing a key role in this.
West Gate draws its 1,400 pupils from one of the toughest communities in the country. Nearly 600 are on the special needs register, 90 per cent enter the school with a "reading deficit" and last year only seven per cent gained five A-C grade GCSE passes.
Turner was brought in after the school failed its OFSTED inspection in 1995, non-attendance being a key issue. Under his headship, attendance has risen from 68 to 85 per cent and exclusions have fallen from more than 280 a year to 27 last year. He is full of praise for the attendance project's work: "It is taking the aggression out of many of the kids. Its work is first-rate."
A Boox for Us conference will report on November 3 in north London on the projects and encourage further co-operation between libraries and youth workers. Education minister Estelle Morris will be the keynote speaker. For more details contact Sara Dickinson at the National Youth Agency, tel: 0116 285 3708, fax: 0116 285 3777. For details about The Reading Kit (a Boox for Us resource pack), Boox magazine and Well Worth Reading's booklists, which schools can order at a discount, fax 01962 853747. Toe by Toe is published by Keda and Harry Cowling at pound;25 (pound;20 for schools). Orders on 01274 598807