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Three bites of the work cherry

When a construction firm moved out of a North East village, the local school negotiated a work deal that benefited its pupils and the builders. Neil Merrick reports

When Esh, a construction group based near Durham, moved away from the village of the same name three years ago, it wanted to give something back to the local community. But when Phil Young, the group director, approached the local secondary school, Deerness Valley, the headteacher, Anne Lakey, told him that she was only interested in support that benefited both parties. "We wanted a situation where my young people got help, but Esh got something out of it as well," she says.

It resulted in a scheme called Fit 4 Employment where up to 120 key stage 4 pupils from Dearness and four other local schools gain work experience and could be offered jobs with the company.

Esh, which moved 11 miles away, is one of more than 100 organisations awarded Big Ticks by Business In The Community, recognising their positive impact on society. It is one of five finalists in the education category at this year's Big Tick National Awards for Excellence next Tuesday.

Anne Lakey says Fit 4 Employment has breathed new life into the curriculum by offering encouragement to youngsters who believed they were unemployable. Many come from former mining villages where unemployment is a way of life. "They are wonderful young people but they don't have much hope that there's anything out there for them," she says. "They used to feel second best to everybody else."

Under the scheme, 120 youngsters spend a week with Esh during the summer term of Year 10. About half return for a further week's work experience the following January. Then, in June, shortly after their GCSE exams, 30 pupils go back to the company for a third time. Last year, 20 of these were offered jobs.

Phil Young of Esh says it is not necessarily looking for future employees as some youngsters may decide that the building industry is not for them.

"We may motivate them and push them towards other sectors or career paths," he says.

Eighteen of the 20 pupils offered jobs last September came from Deerness Valley, which helped design the scheme. And they're not all boys. One girl trained as a fork-lift truck driver.

Last summer's GCSE scores were up 10 per cent at Deerness Valley, while truancy is down. "It helps young people develop a belief in themselves," says Ms Lakey. "They come back to school and they know what they want to do."

When Scottish Power set up its Skillseeker programme for disadvantaged young people a decade ago, there were just 12 places. This year, 70 teenagers are participating across the UK, taking the total number helped since 1996 to more than 1,100. Neil Hunter, a regional manager with Scottish Power Learning, says Skillseeker was one of the first programmes of its kind to offer training and work experience to school-leavers with few, if any, qualifications.

Youngsters aged 16 or 17 are offered positions lasting up to 18 months in warehousing and stores, business administration, or crafts. They receive a weekly training allowance of pound;80 plus expenses.

"We see a radical change once we've got our hands on them so they believe in themselves," says Mr Hunter. "We persuade them that, if they put in the effort, they will see rewards."

Skillseeker is also popular with Scottish Power employees, who can develop leadership and coaching skills while acting as supervisors to those on the scheme. Some youngsters take modern apprenticeships and work as electricians.

But only about one third of those that apply to Scottish Power are accepted. "Sometimes a young person is over-equipped and has set their sights too low and we send them back to see a careers adviser," adds Mr Hunter.

Deutsch Bank's Spotlight Awards, aimed at young people who campaign for change, and Woolworth's Playground Partnerships scheme are both designed to empower pupils. Kerry Ortuzar, community development manager at Deutsch Bank, says the skills developed by youngsters while campaigning - presentation and problem solving - are attractive to employers.

Halo Furnishings in the North West sends volunteers to join language lessons in primary schools. The firms also funds teachers to promote language teaching in deprived areas.

Five make Big Tick finals

* Deutsch Bank Spotlight Awards scheme recognises 11 to18-year-olds who campaign for change.

* Esh Group Fit 4 Employment programme offers work experience in the construction industry to key stage 4 pupils.

* Halo Furnishings Partly funds Languages for Schools scheme, providing language classes for primary schools.

* Scottish Power Skillseeker programme provides training for disaffected school-leavers.

* Woolworths Playground Partnerships scheme offers funding to primary schools to improve their play areas, using pupils' ideas.

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