Leaders of a pilot scheme to tackle social exclusion are wary of the Government's new project. Martin Whittaker reports.
ONE DAY a week, Denise Reay is seconded from her job with the careers service to work as a personal adviser to disaffected teenagers. She has been assigned 10 youngsters from the west of Newcastle upon Tyne.
She believes that the one-to-one relationships she is building with these 15 year-olds are helping them back on track.
"There's one girl who, when I first started, was very timid, very withdrawn.
Once we'd got to know each other, it turned out she had been bullied quite badly and had attempted suicide," she said.
Denise is part of a personal advisers' network in Newcastle, a three-year project to counter teenage disaffection and help youngsters into college or a job at 16.
The project - New Options West - has been running for a year. Manager Andy Gibson believes it highlights key issues for the Government as it prepares to launch its Connexions service, a youth-support service for 13 to 19-year-olds that aims to integrate careers and support services for young people and use personal advisers to help them into adult life, learning and jobs.
Gibson believes that he has been fortunate with his 25 personal advisers and believes Connexions will also need this level of quality.
"This is a big issue. People who can hack it with disaffected kids aren't that common. It was really hard to find the staff for this project," he said.
New Options West was set up by the education authority to catch youngsters falling through the education and training net in Newcastle - especially since the decline in shipbuilding and other industries in the city.
Today, Newcastle's inner-city estates have high crime, second-generation unemployment and low educational achivement, but the scheme will try to redress this among 250 Year 10 students at three local schools: Westgate community college, West Denton high school and Walbottle campus.
The project will create a work-related curriculum to boost employability and offer support through the personal advisers' network, which will monitor students up to the post-16 phase.
Gibson says that provision of youth support has often been too fragmented.
"Most of the agencies have been in the job of crisis management. Given the resources they have, all they could deal with were kids in crisis. There was nothing about prevention," he said.
His advisers in New Options West find that they are now talking to each other for the first time and sharing expertise. He has also found that the scale of disaffected youth in west Newcastle has shocked some team members. "I think they're surprised at just how many kids there are from dysfunctional families," he said.
Young people have raised questions themselves about their main problems, which include poor literacy, bereavement and divorce. But a bonus in the advisory work has been the time available for supporting young people with such problems.
Advisers doubt whether time will be available under the new Connexions scheme, when workers will have bigger caseloads.
Adviser Denise Reay said: "I'm not sure that personal advisers will have the time that we've got, so they're not going to be able to make such an impact."
Social worker Joyce Cockburn, a fellow adviser, also has reservations about the new scheme.
"I don't know how it would work if you had professional advisers," she said.
New Options West has produced a personal advisers' handbook based on the experience of the project. For further information, contact Andy Gibson on 0191 274 2429.