Where is the army of mentors to help the disaffected?

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Tackling the exclusion agenda raises problems for FE. Martin Whittaker reportslt;nipgt; SECTION:Features NO PHYSICAL FILEEvery three months, Carlisle College hosts a meeting of all the different players involved with young people in Cumbria. Thirty bodies are represented on this group, including social services, the local careers service, youth workers, private education and training providers and the college itself. This inter-agency forum was set up last September to try and meet the needs of disaffected 16 to 25-year-olds.

Carlisle's beautiful rural setting masks pockets of deprivation, a problem compounded by poor public transport. The college has been trying to overcome this, laying on free buses, liaising with other local colleges and increasing outreach provision.

The inter-agency forum was set up after research found a lack of communication and co-operation by bodies in helping disadvantaged youngsters. Carlisle's assistant principal, Moira Tattersall, says: "Our research found that the agencies didn't know what others were doing or offering."

Connexions, the Government's new strategy to help 13 to 19-year-olds excluded from education, is being pre-empted by the way Carlisle and other colleges have responded to social exclusion issues. Connexions was first set out in the White Paper, Learning to Succeed, and the Social Exclusion Unit report Bridging the Gap. It aims to bring together a range of existing and new local and national initiatives for young people, and to create a small army of personal advisers drawn from youth and social work, the careers service, teachers and community groups.

What Connexions will cost is unclear, though a figure of around pound;500 million is being mooted, of which half would come from absorbing the careers service. But this is not the only area lacking clarity. How existing agencies, like youth services, and partnerships between colleges and other bodies fit into the scheme are still being debated.

Another concern is that further education colleges will be hit by hidden costs, says Judith Norrington, the Association of Colleges curriculum and quality director. "There is an awful lot of time and money spent on recruiting students who perhaps have disadvantaged backgrounds," she said.

"At the moment, our funding methodology is based around the principle of delivering a course. But, increasingly, what we're looking at is the surrounds - supporting learning, inging people up to make sure they come into classes. And you're putting them on something which doesn't lead to achievement units because it's what they need to build their confidence.

"So there's lots of steps and, probably, support needed along the way, whether it be skills for studying or trying to find them somewhere to live. If personal advisers do all that, fine. But there'll still be a massive co-ordination role."

Judith Norrington believes that colleges have developed expertise in areas of social inclusion which could be shared. "I think they have addressed many of these needs and, sometimes, they've done it in spite of, rather than because of, support."

Tower Hamlets College in east London is an example of this. The area has a big ethnic minority population, high unemployment and low academic achievement in schools. Principal Annette Zera says the college provides its own support structure. "Sixteen to 19-year-olds get very little careers advice and adults get nothing," she says. "Through single regeneration budget money, we've set up a big employability programme. We've invented our own."

National Youth Agency chief executive Tom Wylie believes Connexions is a step forward. But he wonders where we are going to find the thousands of people with the qualities to be good mentors for difficult teenagers. "We are anxious that there will not be the sufficiency of services alongside the personal adviser. The question is to whom will Connexions connect? Because some of these things may not be in place.

"I also have questions about where they're going to get these people and at what level of skill. Because if it's really hard-core, in-your-face-type youngsters, or very shy youngsters, or very education-phobic youngsters, then that's not easy work to carry out."

Tony Watts, director of Nicec - the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling - believes there are fundamental flaws with Connexions. "The whole thing has been devised in relation to the needs of young people at risk of dropping out of the system. The problem is that now we are scaling this up and merging it into a careers service, a universal service, the fit is not very good.

He is also unhappy at the lack of clarity over where FE colleges fit into this. "There are real concerns about whether the partnership work which has been the model of good practice will be sustained under the new arrangements."

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